Monday, August 6, 2012

Prairie Coneflower

Prairie Coneflower (c) John Ashley
Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)
I don't get over to eastern Montana very often. But one of the native Great Basin wildflowers that I've spotted lately in central Montana is the Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera).

Our Montana version features 3-7 bright-yellow ray flowers below a thimble-shaped head that bears many more tiny flowers. In other words, each one of those brown spots is one flower in this composite.

The Texas version that I grew up with looks a little different. The drooping ray flowers are mostly reddish-brown with a thin yellow margin. The local common name is "Mexican Hat."

Although these perennial forbs are native to the eastern Montana plains, at least some of the ones I've seen might have been planted from seed. There are reportedly between 74,000 (from the USDA) and 1,230,000 (from the University of Texas) seeds per pound - but I'd like to know who counted them and why there's such a discrepancy.

Heading south on US89 from Browning, there are a couple of miles of Prairie Coneflowers currently in bloom - but only on the east side of the road. There are also a couple of smaller patches in bloom along one of my favorite Montana backroads, Hwy 271, known locally as the Helmville cutoff road.

If you find yourself on this backroad (and I don't know why you would unless, like me, you tend to wander) you'd discover a hilly countryside that is mostly unremarkable by Montana standards. But there's only a few scattered ranches and homes tucked away here and there, and you have a good chance to be the only car on the road. It's a pleasant reminder of what the countryside looked like before four-lane highways.