“What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.”
Conservationist Aldo Leopold was referring to compassplant when he penned those words in his well-known outdoors essay ”A Sand County Almanac.”
Silphium laciniatum, commonly called compassplant, is a native prairie flower that still can be found in the Sioux City Prairie near Briar Cliff University.
Now, the member of the aster family, which can live 100 years and towers 6 to 9 feet tall, has received a new designation – the official flower of the city of Sioux City.
Last month, the City Council kicked out the petite petunia, which had carried the municipal floral designation since 1957. Before 1957, the hollyhock was the city flower. City staffer Derek Carmona figured it was time to highlight awareness of native species and their importance in the prairie ecosystem. Enter compassplant.
“It has a yellow daisy-like flower, sort of like a miniature sunflower,” Laurie Taylor, master garden coordinator for Iowa State Extension in Sioux City, said. “The large taproot goes 15 feet into the ground. It can have six to 30 flowers per stem and blooms in midsummer for about 1 ½ months.”
Although the city calls it “compass flower,” and others do too, that isn't its official name. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s database calls it compassplant -- one word. So say prairie preservationists Bill and Dianne Blankenship of Sioux City.
“It certainly would be considered the favorite prairie plant among prairie lovers,” Bill Blankenship said. “It appears on many logos, on T-shirts and other things.”
Prairie enthusiasts like the perennial plant not only because of its importance to the prairies but also because Leopold wrote about it a number of times. Leopold, a native of Burlington, Iowa, was an author, scientist and environmentalist. He is credited with being one of the leaders in promoting wilderness conservation.
Compassplants were used by pioneers as a compass to find their way since the leaves orient themselves north to south in sunshine. It provides nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies and other insects, and its seeds provide food for song birds.
Although compassplant can be found growing in the Sioux City Prairie, Bill Blankenship said it’s on the decline due to predation. The culprit? Deer.
In naming an official flower, City Hall followed the practice of most states of designating a state flower and bird. Iowa’s state flower and bird are the wild prairie rose and eastern goldfinch. Nebraska has goldenrod and western meadowlark, and South Dakota has the pasque flower and ring-necked pheasant. Since 2000, South Dakota has also had a state dessert, the custard-filled pastry known as kuchen.
With the debates over vicious dogs and predatory deer munching their way through peoples’ yards at an end -- at least for the foreseeable future -- Sioux City lawmakers might find time to designate additional icons to carry the official city blessing.
Some suggestions: City Pests: wild turkeys/deer. City Tree: elm. City Pet: anything but pit bulls. City Dessert: Green Gables’ famous hot fudge sundae.