Tiny Flowers in Big Masses

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Somewhere along the downstream third of the Billy Goat A trail there’s a 40-foot traverse along a cliff face – really one of the best parts of the trail. I was working my way down those rocks when a bright spot of yellow at the bottom caught my eye.

Helenium flexuosum (Asteraceae) is by no means an unusual plant: it can be found throughout the Maryland Piedmont and much of the eastern US, ranging from southern Maine south to Florida, west to Wisconsin and Minnesota and eastern Texas. It’s not on any state’s conservation list. But for some reason, I’ve only seen it once, along Billy Goat C, and that was two years ago. So I was delighted to see such a nice stand of plants along a very well-used trail.

This plant, along with its close relative common sneezeweed (H. autumnale), likes sun and wet soils, so look for both species along riverbanks. There are huge stands of H. autumnale along the rocks on the northern shore of the Potomac in D.C., upstream of Fletcher’s Boathouse.

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What I really love about this flower is how well it demonstrates what composites are all about. The three-lobed yellow “petals” are the ray flowers, of which there are typically 8 to 13, while the spherical purplish-brown head can consist of 250 to 500 disk flowers.

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The photo on the right shows two inflorescences. The bottom several ranks of disk flowers are open on the left one, with the double-lobed stigmas protruding. All of the disk flowers are open on the inflorescence on the right. Click on the picture to see a larger image. Isn’t that neat?

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