A Tough Plant, Not A Weed

I blame whomever named the plant.  Giving a plant the name “ironweed”, apparently – according to Google – because of its tough stem, creates an unnecessarily negative connotation right from the start.  It’s an unfair connotation for a plant that is both beautiful and important.  It’s also a big favorite of butterflies; something I can attest to after spending a couple hours last weekend chasing monarchs and others around ironweed patches at our family prairie.

Ironweed at our family prairie, growing abundantly in a smooth brome-filled draw.  The abundance of the plant goes up and down each year, but it never spreads beyond the draw or shades out the grass around and beneath it.

There are three species of ironweed (genus Vernonia) in Nebraska, and two that are common in the prairies I am most familiar with.  Both of those – V. fasciculata and V. baldwinii – seem to act in similar ways, but the first likes a little wetter sites than the second.  Both species can occur as scattered plants across a prairie, but are also often found in fairly dense patches where conditions favor them.  That patchy local abundance is the first mark against them by people who don’t appreciate their value.  The second mark is that cattle absolutely refuse to eat them.  This both helps them stand out (especially when blooming) in heavily grazed pastures and helps them spread across those same sites since they gain a strong competitive edge when surrounding plants are all being grazed hard.

Like many other plant species I tend to admire and write about, however, ironweed is not an invasive plant – it’s an opportunist.  It takes advantage of soil and management conditions that favor it, but doesn’t just spread aggressively across pastures.  If you look online, it’s not hard to find websites that encourage its control in pastures.  I dispute that.  At least in my experience, ironweed has its favorite locations (often in draws or other low spots where moisture and nitrogen are high) and pulses in abundance within those locations as grazing treatments and weather vary from year to year.  At our family prairie, ironweed is fairly abundant in some of the low draws where high nitrogen also strongly favors smooth brome, but while there are years when those patches are thicker than others, the overall patch sizes and stem densities of ironweed aren’t any higher today than they were 15 years ago.  That matches what I see elsewhere in central and eastern Nebraska.

(I found a university website online that blamed ironweed for making cattle have to look harder to find grass, thus reducing grazing efficiency.  Give me a break.  That’s the same attitude that leads to people spraying pastures to remove everything that isn’t grass, and then wondering why they need to fertilize their grass and supplement their cattle’s diet.  The same people blame others for the lack of wildlife and pollinators on their land.  …Ok, I’m done ranting – let’s talk about butterflies.)

When I arrived at our family prairie last weekend, I immediately noticed monarch butterflies flying all over the place.  I’d seen a surprising number of larvae back in July, so figured we might have a good August, but I was still impressed with how many adults I saw.  I’m guessing there were 40-50 or more across our 100 acres of prairie.  They kept moving, so it was hard to count them…

Almost every monarch I spotted was either flying or feeding on ironweed.  A few other flowers got attention too, including wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Flodman’s thistle (Cirsium flodmanii), and some early tall thistle blossoms (Cirsium altissimum), but ironweed clearly monopolized most of their attention.  I started stalking monarchs with my camera and eventually found a couple that let me get close enough for to capture reasonable photographs.  While I was doing that, I also spotted myriad bees, along with quite a few other butterfly and moth species.

Here are some photos of the butterflies and moths that were kind enough to let me get close.  I didn’t ever get a good shot of a bee, though there were at least a dozen species feeding on the ironweed flowers, and I also never caught up to one of the many silver-spotted skipper butterflies that were all over the place.

This is one of many monarchs that were floating from plant to plant across ironweed patches last weekend.

I haven’t looked up this moth yet. Maybe one of you can save me the trouble? Thanks in advance.

I’ve been seeing a lot of adult swallowtails around lately, including this tiger swallowtail , which was pretty easy to spot, even from across a large draw.

Ok, this black swallowtail wasn’t on ironweed when I photographed it, but it went to ironweed after feeding on this native thistle.  I was taking bets (in my head) about whether or not the crab spider on that thistle would be able to take down the big butterfly. The butterfly eventually moved within striking distance, but the spider didn’t attack, so I’m guessing it decided to wait for something a little smaller.

Thanks to Neil Dankert, I can tell you that this gorgeous little brown skipper butterfly is a tawny-edged skipper.

Ironweed is too beautiful and important for its name.  Maybe we need a campaign to rename it, and maybe that campaign would help convince people, including those at a certain unnamed university, to leave this plant alone to do its job.  Either way, it might be fun to think about potential names.  Any ideas?

34 thoughts on “A Tough Plant, Not A Weed

  1. Hi Chris! I’m with you on the name — some friends and I have taken to calling it Iron Plant! Let’s start a movement! :)
    Same with Verbesina virginica — we call that one Frost Plant.
    Love all the butterfly photos, awesome as always!

  2. You need to rant more about overgrazing, unnecessary herbiciding, unnecessary fertilizing and blaming everything but the cattle rancher.

  3. One of the most prominent forbs in some (unmanaged) CSG pastures I frequent in Northern IN. Tough as nails. This time of year it’s always a magnet for swallowtails and monarchs. And not hurting the grass stand at all.

    Also was one of the first forbs that popped after a burn ran through some CSG bordering a NWSG planting. Crawling with monarchs (which are very abundant this year).

  4. Beautiful pictures and great information! Your posts warm my heart. Thanks for your commitment to native species of all kinds.

  5. That’s one very useful ‘weed’. I’m always reminded of Joan Nassaurr’s concept of ‘Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames’ and how ecological function appears disorderly to the non-naturalist (or anyone lacking an open mind!). It’s very hard to achieve visually acceptable planting that functions.

    On the other hand many farmers are now seeking more diverse pastures and I have clients with 20 or more species in a deliberately designed pasture.

  6. Purple Prairie Pollinator Cushion/Nectary 😊 The Beautiful Conventional Rancher Irritant. Purple Cushion Purple Rain Umbrella …… 😂


  7. ‘Ironstem’?

    On Wed, Aug 8, 2018, 8:27 AM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: “I blame whomever named the plant. Giving a plant > the name “ironweed”, apparently – according to Google – because of its > tough stem, creates an unnecessarily negative connotation right from the > start. It’s an unfair connotation for a plant that is both b” >

  8. I think the genus name, Vernonia, sounds quite distinguished, though I’ll admit it foesn’t combine well with species labels like prairie, interior, Baldwin’s. Anyway, ironweed isn’t bad; it sounds strong. My main objection tho the name is people so often mix it up with that other metal plant, leadplant, a plant which is cool in quite different ways.
    Anyway, I share your admiration for Vernonia species. We have five of them around here, and they often hybridize and grab genes. From each other.

  9. Chris, I’d like to hear more about how you are trying to control the brome in the draw. Has it spread or remained confined? Curious if you have tried any late spring burns on it, or focused grazing.

    • Hi Patrick,
      Good question. The brome appears to persist in those draws because of the moist/high nitrogen conditions there – a common issue in this part of the state. Switching the cropland on our property to no-till when I took over farm management has helped dramatically reduce runoff from the fields, but it hasn’t reduced brome dominance. Our grazing system (currently using the open gate approach I wrote about last November) helps keep the brome from being so dominant that it excludes other plants, and the diversity of those areas has been increasing over time. I don’t anticipate we’ll ever get rid of the brome, but if I can knock its vigor back with grazing periodically and allow some forb diversity to maintain itself, I’m happy. We have brome across the entire prairie, but it is most abundant in the draws where it has the strongest competitive edge. On the uplands, it can be abundant when we allow it to be, but it never gets much of a chance to thrive before cattle knock it back again – I don’t really worry much about it anymore.

      • Thanks for your comments Chris. I had a late spring fire at my place (May 7th), and we had that brief spate of hot dry weather. This really seemed to knock back the brome, especially in the drier areas. I wish I could experiment with fire, grazing, overseeding a bit more.

  10. My favorite reason to love Ironweed is that it is the preferred plant of male Grasshopper Sparrows for perching, singing, and advertising/defending their territories. The inflorescences stay on the plant all through winter and the dead, brown, flat-topped triangular shape CLOSELY mimics the flat-backed, pale brown triangular shape of the sparrows. Who is mimicking who here? I’m convinced there is something going on…

  11. Great photos! thanks for sharing. Every summer, I have to pound the information back into my head about Iron Weed and Lead Plant. In fact, it’s a minor miracle that I thought of them both just now. Who names two plants blooming so close together after metals? Or really anything. What if they were both named for cats? It’s too confusing. :)

  12. Blessings to you Without Iron weed we would have a lot fewer natives in a lot of pastures. Thanks Chris Is it Ok to copy and paste to show a friend on FB?

  13. Great article, great plant. Love your rant. I was in the Upper Peninsula of MI last weekend and saw large numbers of monarchs in the fields. Terry (Green Valley, AZ)

  14. I agree! I love ironweed – it opens up at the perfect time when the monarchs need it most on their journey. Just by observation, I have always thought ironweed to be the most favored nectar plants by monarchs. They choose it over anything else blooming around it. I planted a bunch around my house and i like how it is strong and straight and holds up in a planting. It also is one of my favorite plants to collect seed from in the late fall. The flower transforms into little feathery puffs full of tiny seeds that just come off with a pinch. They are also the perfect height to collect. And I too hate that they are called ironweed. Iron describes nothing about them. I haven’t thought of a good name yet, but maybe not with purple in it since there are so many native plants that start with “purple…”

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