This year, I had to forgo my usual Mother’s Day celebration due to COVID-19. I usually attend Horicon Living History Days (an event where historical reenactors camp out at one of Horicon’s parks and teach about living in specific time periods) and go to Ledge Park. This year Horicon Living History Days was canceled, and I was working, so I decided not to head out to Ledge, either. That meant that I missed out on seeing one of my favorite spring ephemerals there, pussytoes.
I previously thought that pussytoes were exclusively at Ledge Park and not found at any other Dodge County parks, but I found out differently this year while documenting species for the botanist at the UW-Herbarium. While wandering around some of the campsite areas at Astico, I found many pussytoes. It amazes me how Astico is my “home” park and I am still constantly finding new species there. Of course, forcing myself to travel to different areas of the park and actively searching for various species helps!
Pussytoes earned their name due to the fuzzy, cat toe-like shape of the flowers. These may be white or pinkish. There are 2-8 flower heads clustered at the top of the plant. The leaves are basal and alternate, gray-green with a silvery white undersurface due to the hairs coating them. The stems are also hairy, and the plants themselves may be 4-16″ tall. They may be found in dry to moderate moisture areas such as lawns, prairies, or fields. They were seen within lawn areas at both Astico and Ledge parks. In Wisconsin we have four Antennaria species; these can be difficult to tell apart. Species are usually grouped into two categories: those with 1 prominent basal vein, and those with 3-5 prominent basal veins. I noticed one prominent basal vein on the plants I have been looking at, so I suspect that the species is Antennaria neglecta, Field Pussytoes, but I am not positive on this, and the botanist I have been working with does not have much experience with them to state otherwise.
Male and female flowers appear on different plants. The male and female flowers tend to grow in separate colonies, but they don’t grow too far apart. With that said, I noticed this male colony what I consider a fair distance from the female colonies. The male colony was near the river, while the female colonies were up by the shelters. It is interesting to note that while we call these pussytoes, Antennaria refers to antenna-like appearance of the brown stamens protruding from the male flowers. Male flowers are also more rounded.
I just find pussytoes to be a quirky and fun spring ephemeral that tends to be overlooked in favor of the more showy woodland flowers, especially because they often show up on lawns. The next time you are walking on a lawn, take a close look to see if some pussytoes might be around. They’re fuzzy and look like cat toes! Need I say more?