Plantain-leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) bloom in early spring, their flower shoots and leaves emerging from the soil as the temperatures warm and the days lengthen. The common name ‘Pussytoes’ comes from the resemblance of the tight flower clusters to a cat’s paw, especially when the flowers are still in bud. Both the common and scientific (plantaginifolia) names refer to the appearance of the mature leaves of this plant, which resemble those of the Plantains (Plantago species). The leaves remain green throughout the winter.
Plantain-leaved Pussytoes are Aster (Asteraceae) family members. Each toe-shaped inflorescence (flower cluster) consists of small tubular ‘disk’ flowers typical of this family. Somewhat less common in an herbaceous plant (one that’s not woody) is the fact that Plantain-leaved Pussytoes have male and female flowers on separate plants. As the flowers open, they reveal their sex. In the male flowers, the stamens (the male reproductive parts) emerge above the tubular corolla, transforming the inflorescence’s appearance from pussytoe-like to more of the look of a white-iced cupcake covered with birthday candles. In a close-up, a stamen also resembles a box of popcorn (at least to me), with the emerging pollen playing the role of the popcorn spilling out of the box.
The female flowers look like tiny pompoms, with white hair-like projections (pappus) jutting well past the tube of fused flower petals. After a flower is successfully germinated, the pappus will transform to a light, fluffy appendage attached to the ripe fruit, helping it to disperse with the wind. The genus ‘Antennaria’ refers to the antenna-like appearance of the pappus.
Like most plant species, Plantain-leaved Pussytoes would prefer to be cross-pollinated. This requires the assistance of insects who visit the flowers and transfer pollen on their bodies from male to female plants. But if flower visitors aren’t timely enough, Plantain-leaved Pussytoes can also self-fertilize to produce seed. It may not be as strong a genetic result, but it’s better than failing to reproduce.
Plantain-leaved Pussytoes can also reproduce vegetatively through horizontal ground-level stems, called stolons. Through this method, Pussytoes can form a spreading colony of shoots, all sharing the same genetics, and all of the same sex.
On a warm spring afternoon, I watched while pollinators visited two separate but near-by colonies of Plantain-leaved Pussytoes, one male, the other female.
Flies were the predominant visitors to the female flowers, both flesh flies and Tachinid flies, although there was also an ant visiting for nectar.
Adult flesh flies often drink nectar from flowers, but their offspring have different needs. The larvae of many species live in and eat carrion, an adaptation that gives this genus (Sarcophaga) its common name. This important service helps to speed the decomposition of dead animals, and can be used in determining time of death in crime scene investigations.
In addition to pollination, Tachinid flies also work a second job, helping to keep other insect populations in check. Their larvae develop within an insect host, eating it from the inside. They keep the host insect alive by eating its vital organs last, finishing just as the larva completes its own development. This particular Tachinid Fly (Gonia species) specializes on owlet moth caterpillars.
Tachinid flies and Cuckoo Bees visited the male flowers while I watched.
Since the Tachinid Flies were the only species I saw foraging on both male and female flowers, they are the most likely to have helped this particular colony of Plantain-leaved Pussytoes with pollination.
American Lady butterflies specialize on some Aster family members as food for their caterpillars, including Plantain-leaved Pussytoes, other Antennaria species, Pearly Everlastings (Anaphalis margaritacea), and a few others.
Plantain-leaved Pussytoes with male flowers can grow to a height of about 8 inches (20 cm). The flower stalks of plants with female flowers are taller, with a maximum height of about a foot (30 cm).
Plantain-leaved Pussytoes can be found in open woods, fields and rocky banks from Maine to Minnesota (except Michigan), south as far as Louisiana and the Florida panhandle. One source, the Flora of North America, says it can be found in Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec provinces in Canada.
Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy. Butterflies of the East Coast. 2005.
Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. 2007.
Eastman, John. The Book of Field and Roadside. 2003.
Marshall, Stephen A. Insects Their Natural History and Diversity. 2006.
Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania. 2007
Stearn, William T. Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names. 1996