Kittentails
Besseya bullii
Figwort family (Scrophulariaceae)

Description: This native perennial wildflower consists of a low rosette of basal leaves up to 6" across; a mature plant will produce one or more flowering stalks up to 12" tall. The blades of the basal leaves are up to 3" long and 2½" across; they have stout hairy petioles up to 1½" long. The basal leaves are more or less oval in shape, crenate along their margins, palmately veined, and hairy on both their upper and lower surfaces; the upper surface of each leaf is medium green, while the lower surface is pale green or pale purplish green. Each flowering stalk is stout, erect, and very hairy; it has small alternate leaves up to 1¼" long and ½" across, which become gradually smaller as they ascend toward the inflorescence. The alternate leaves are similar to the basal leaves, except they are ovate in shape and smaller in size. Each alternate leaf is sessile or it clasps the stalk. The inflorescence consists of a stout spike of small flowers about 2-6" long. These flowers are densely clustered along the spike. Underneath each flower, there is a small leafy bract that is lanceolate. Each flower has a 2-lipped corolla that is cream-colored or pale yellow and a calyx consisting of 4 green sepals that are elliptic and hairy. The corolla is about 1/5" long and slightly longer than the calyx; the upper lip of the corolla is unlobed, while the irregular lower lip is unlobed or divided into 2-3 lobes. Each flower has a pair of exerted stamens and a slender white style. The blooming period occurs from late spring to early summer and lasts about 3 weeks. The flowers bloom gradually from the bottom of the spike to its apex. Each flower is replaced by a small 2-celled seed capsule that contains several seeds. The root system consists of a cluster of coarse fibrous roots; an older plant may form a rootstock that resembles a caudex or taproot. This wildflower occasionally forms colonies at favorable sites.

Cultivation: The preference is full sun, dry conditions, and a barren acidic soil that is sandy or gravelly. Partial sun is also acceptable. This wildflower grows slowly and doesn't tolerate competition from taller, more aggressive plants. It is adaptable to sunny rock gardens and has few problems with pests and disease.

Range & Habitat: Kittentails is restricted to the west-central and northwest sections of Illinois, where it is uncommon (see Distribution Map). This wildflower is state-listed as 'threatened.' Habitats include dry sand prairies, dry gravel prairies, hill prairies, barren savannas, thinly wooded bluffs, and sandy or gravelly riverbanks. This species is restricted to high quality habitats in natural areas; it is endemic to the Midwest and uncommon throughout its range.

Faunal Associations: The flowers are pollinated by small bees; in particular, the Halictid bee Lasioglossum anomalus is described as a floral visitor by Moure & Hurd (1987). Additional information about floral-faunal relationships is unavailable.

Photographic Location: The wildflower garden of the webmaster in Urbana, Illinois.

Comments: While not particularly showy, Kittentails is an unusual little plant. It resembles some broad-leaved Plantago spp. (Plantains), but the floral spike of Kittentails is more stout and its flowers are insect-pollinated. The closest relatives (either Besseya spp. or Synthyris spp.) are found in mountainous areas of the western states. These latter species have flowers (or floral bracts) that are purple, otherwise they are similar in appearance to their eastern counterpart. Another scientific name of Kittentails is Wulfenia bullii.

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