Flowers of the Summer Prairie: Western Ironweed

by Rachel Creager Ireland

Spring is often thought of as the time for flowers, and the tallgrass prairie has her share of lovely spring wildflowers: beardtongue, spiderwort, milkweed, evening primrose, and many others. But now it is August, and the delicate beauty of the spring-bloomers has long faded; under the brutal summer sun, many of the spring plants have wilted and disappeared altogether, not to be seen again until the gentle spring rains awaken their winter-dormant seeds. But some plants thrive in the heat and glare of high summer on the open prairie. This is their heyday. Sunflower, compass plant, daisy fleabane, and our flower du jour, western ironweed, Vernonia baldwinii.

In 1900, Neltje Blanchan wrote of ironweed, “Emerson says a weed is a plant whose virtues we have not yet discovered; but surely it is no small virtue in the iron-weed to brighten the roadsides and low meadows throughout the summer with bright clusters of bloom.” She also notes that the tiger swallowtail butterfly seems to have a particular affinity for ironweed. I myself have seen upon this plant a lovely, white-furred caterpillar from a different feline lepidopteran; that is, the tiger moth.

In 1941, a Dr. Frank Gates had apparently read neither Emerson nor Blanchard, for he wrote only about ironweed’s undesirable traits, particularly when in pastures where cattle graze. He describes the plant in fine detail, without wasting paper dwelling on its beauty; then proceeds on to how to eradicate it. I wouldn’t give space on my shelf to his book, Weeds in Kansas, but for the unequalled quality of his drawings and descriptions, which have been consistently my best resource for identification of our native flora. Indeed, where many experts on native plants give their attention only to the natives, Dr. Gates doesn’t neglect to tell us about the immigrants as well; and his book was where I finally found the names of henbit, shepherd’s purse, purslane, and prickly lettuce.

In 1992, Kelly Kindscher lamented that so little attention had been paid to the medicinal virtues of prairie plants; of ironweed, he said only that it was used by the Cherokee in combination with sneezeweed to prevent menstruation in the months after childbirth.

Of the numerous species of ironweed native to North America, others have been been used to support feminine wellness and comfort. The midwives of our community are currently exploring the possibilities for what help it may have to offer us.

I sat by a patch of ironweed, to ask if there was anything it wanted me to tell you. I felt the soft fuzz of its underleaves, and I admired the plant’s habit of growing straight up as one stem, then branching at the top into pairs, each pair reaching out from the stem one-third of a rotation from the previous pair, with leaves showing beneath the stalks in the same pattern when viewed from above. It’s a neat and effective design for maximizing the plant’s exposure to the energizing light of the sun, from which ironweed never shrinks. I did not discern a message for me. Perhaps my friend was just enjoying the weather, a typically hot, bright August day in Kansas. Perhaps the message was, “Plant your roots deep, grow wholeheartedly toward the sun, your source; but don’t forget the soft, delicate underside of things.”