After meeting several species of Silphium last year in gorgeous, wide-open Nebraska, I returned to Texas that fall and had my mind set on finding Silphium in the Cross Timbers and Prairies ecoregion. I consulted various range maps, which showed many Silphium species present in North TX, then took to the backroads, driving along forgotten patches of roadside and old-field prairies, finding places where time was a bit slower and easy going – those were the places where the prairie natives seemed to be doing alright. I found a patch of Compassplant (S. laciniatum), growing right up to the Chico gravel road edge, colonizing severely overgrazed rangeland of Vernon clay soils on erosional gully slopes. That surprised me, as Silphiums aren’t considered pioneer species, but are thought of as mid to late successional species within the schemes of terrestrial plant succession. After a bit of research, I found a paper from Auffendore and Wistendahl, which noted a large population of S. laciniatum in Ohio whose reproduction persistence was linked to soil slippage, an erosional type of terrestrial disturbance. Plant succession is never really a black and white set of states after all.
Silhpiums were once the king forbs of the tallgrass prairies, covering some two-thirds of the North American continent from East to Midwest, Canada to Texas. Are the isolated and lonely populations I’ve found relicts of once larger communities whose members have long since been grazed out and plowed under? They surely have not been planted – most people think of Silphium as just another sunflower or some kind of weed after seeing the plant’s huge leaves; large, rough as sandpaper, and most unusual in shape. In such severely altered landscapes that surround us today, can the Silphium continue to survive and cheerily brighten the late May aspect of these North Texas prairies? I have hope they can. After all, they’ve been around for some 10,000 years and have much more claim to the land than we humans do.
This month, I found another patch of Compassplant, along with a big roadside colony of Rosinweed (S. integrifolium). The only thing I had not yet found in regards to North TX Silphiums is one in flower. And this year I did. My spirits soared at the sight of it.
“What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked. . . .”Certainly, [Silphium] saw the successive funerals of the local pioneers as they retired, one by one, to their repose beneath the bluestem. . . .”Few grieved when the last buffalo left Wisconsin, and few will grieve when the last Silphium follows him to the lush prairies of never-never land.”
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1948