A flower by any other name

Orange Hawkweed

Summer wildflowers are beginning to come out. I’m seeing many that I tend to associate with the hot, still, “dog days” of summer. Flowers such as chicory, daisies, vetches, bladderwort, Viper’s Bugloss, and others. One that I spotted recently was the above. I’ve always known this as Indian Paintbrush, so I was a little surprised to find, when I Googled “Indian Paintbrush”, that the actual wildflower of that name is not this plant and has nothing to do with it. (When Blackburnian asked what today’s blog topic was, I showed him a photo of the plant, and he said, “Oh, Indian Paintbrush?” So I’m not the only one to have thought that was its name! They do look very paintbrush-shaped.) So now what? I thought I’d try the wildflower ID tool that Winterwoman at A Passion For Nature posted about a little while ago, but it turns out it’s down while the site manager switches ISPs and gets everything up and going again.

So I did a search for Ontario Wildflowers, found a site that listed names alongside pictures, and located my flower. It’s Orange Hawkweed, Hieracium aurantiacum, and like virtually every other wildflower I’ve posted about lately, it’s not native to North America. (Incidentally, the true Indian Paintbrush is native.) It goes by several other names, including Devil’s Paintbrush and, in Europe, where it’s from, Fox-and-cubs. One website indicated that the name Hawkweed originated from ancient Greece, where they believed that hawks would eat the flowers to improve their eyesight (although it was actually used as an herbal remedy for sight problems, this not likely true, but a delightful image nonetheless). It’s a member of the aster family, Asteraceae, like daisies, dandelions, asters, and others, with many rayed “petals” around a central cluster of tiny individual flowers.

Orange Hawkweed

It was introduced to North America, possibly Vermont in 1875, as a cultivated garden plant. At some point it escaped from cultivation (this brings up images of plants growing legs and sneaking away) and quickly settled into disturbed habitats around human development. Among its favourite spots are roadsides, abandoned and regenerating fields, and waste places such as empty lots – the sorts of places where nothing’s established and it’s easy to gain a foothold over native plants, or where the conditions are harsh enough that few native plants would prosper. However, it’s also found in natural areas where conditions are suitable. It’s now found coast-to-coast, though it has a much stronger presence in the east, near its original “release” site. The species is on the noxious weeds list of many states and provinces, and is prohibited from distribution or cultivation in most of these. It has also been introduced to Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, where it is also problematic.

Orange Hawkweed with skipper

Despite its non-native status, the flowers still attract many native insects. I’ve seen butterflies, such as this skipper, visiting them, as well as bees, flies and ants. The plants tend to be passed over by herbivores, however, and heavily grazed areas may end up with large populations of the flower, as the grazing down of native, palatable vegetation allows for the hawkweed to take root.

When the plants go to seed they’ll produce little tufts, like the seeds of dandelions. Each flower stem can have up to 30 flowers, each of which can produce as many as 30 seeds. They generally rely on wind for dispersion, however the invasive spread of the species is aided by hitching rides on passing animals and people (who can carry the seeds much greater distances). Once a seed and plant is established, it spreads locally through rhizomes (underground roots that can produce whole new plants some distance from the parent) and stolons (sideways stems that lie flat along the ground, putting down roots at intervals and starting new plants). Because of this vegetative reproductive strategy, pulling up individual plants may not necessarily remove the whole patch, as remaining bits of rhizomes or stolons have the potential to regenerate.

Orange Hawkweed with ant

Although it can be very widespread and abundant in some areas, at my parents’ there are only a few small patches. I seem to remember there being more, when I was younger. There also seemed to be more dandelions on the lawn, too, though, and daisies and Queen Anne’s Lace and New England Asters in the fall… Pollinator populations are falling, but I highly doubt that it’s enough (yet) that the wildflower community is being taken over by grasses, so perhaps it was just the slightly distorted memory of a child, when everything seemed bigger and grander.

Yellow Hawkweed

There are actually hawkweed species native to North America. Wikipedia lists 51 species of Hieracium in the United States. Flora Ontario gives 19 unique results for the genus Hieracium. All of the other 18 species are yellow. Identifying Orange Hawkweed is a breeze, but identifying the rest requires a bit more deliberation. I think the one above is Yellow Hawkweed (among many other common names), Hieracium caespitosum, because it appears to be the only one of Ontario’s species that tends to clump all of its flowers at the top of the stem, rather than branching them more spread out, in a more open pattern. It’s also a fairly common species, relative to the others. Unfortunately, like the Orange, it’s also an introduced species. I’m sure if I keep looking I’m bound to come across a native meadow wildflower eventually… (It really says something about the state of our ecosystems, doesn’t it?)