Plants of the Western Slope June 22, 2016
By Evelyn Horn
Published Wednesday, June 22, 2016 10:41 am
They're everywhere! Scattered through the unmown field, along the ditch bank, and all along the edge of the highways -- Mountain Puffballs! The dandelion seed heads are so very small in comparison, for these are about four inches in diameter, much larger than the flowers that preceded them.
There's no traffic along this back road and so I stop to admire. I always think about this extraordinary seed-dispersal phenomenon throughout the winter and the spring and now here it is. It's a "nice" weed. Not prickly or smelly or overly aggressive, and it's pretty. Bright yellow blossoms atop dull green foliage. This is a member of the sunflower family: many individual flowers are arranged to mimic a single blossom. I gently open a blossom and here are about 30 individual flowers ... each one has a seed at the base. A structure of delicate hairs (properly called the "pappus") serves as a "parachute" to aid in seed dispersion (think overgrown dandelion!).
Here's a puffball in fruit or seed and it's like those that I knew as a child.
It shimmers in the sunlight and to me, it's one of the most elegant structures in the plant world. I carefully take a single seed ... it's about a half-inch long, rough and bumpy along its edges. Above the seed is a narrower, half-inch bare section (called a "beak" in botanical terms). So the seed itself dangles below the parachute. With my hand lens I can see the structure more clearly ...
20 or more tawny, firm hairs supporting innumerable finer hairs ... interwoven like the segments of a downy feather. Here's a parachute that's fully open ... I lift it and allow it to drift away ... shimmering in the bright sunshine.
This plant is known as Mountain Puffball, Salsify and Oyster Plant (the root is supposed to taste like oysters -- I never tried it!). Properly, my plant is Tragopogon pretensis. The Greek word "tragos" means goat, while "pogon" means "beard." So we have "goat's beard." And pretensis means "meadows." Of course it's an alien weed, but I'm thrilled to find it again this season!