Stupendous, Astonishing Silphium

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.

Aldo Leopold

A Sand County Almanac

Silphium are among the most interesting of the prairie forbs.  They stand out, not only because of their enormous size, but because they all have interesting attributes.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) is usually the first of the Silphium to bloom


Like many sunflowers, the blossoms of Compass Plant turn toward the sun, from east to west.  The 3-4” golden blossoms bloom alternately along the top half of the 3-9’ tall stems from early July through mid-to late August. The most striking feature of the plant, however, is its magnificent, oversize oak leaf-shaped leaves.  They orient themselves in a north-south position, thus providing an accurate compass for native tribes and early settlers.

The next to bloom is Rosin Weed (Silphium integrifolium).

In the prairie, Rosin Weed grows 2-4’ tall; in my garden, it is over my head.  (If you want a shorter plant, cut the stems back hard at the end of May.)  Clusters of large, canary yellow daisies bloom at the top of the stems in July and August.  The rough sandpapery, stalkless leaves are arranged in pairs along the length of the stiff stems.  It’s called Rosin Weed because it produces resin along the stems and on the flower stalks that Indian and pioneer children used to chew like gum.




My favorite Silphium is Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum). The enormous, rough, spade-shaped basal leaves are a dramatic presence in the prairie and make a striking focal point in the prairie garden from early spring through late fall and into the winter, as the leaves turn to a gorgeous red-mahogany.   Hold your hands on both sides of the leaf–it will feel cold no matter how hot the day.  At the beginning of July smooth leafless stalks rise up to 10’ or more; a cluster of yellow daisies begins to bloom at the top of each stalk the 3rd or 4th week in July.

The last to begin to bloom and my least favorite Silphium is Cup Plant–not because it is unattractive, but because it is so aggressive.  I’ve never planted it–it just appeared spontaneously.  And it keeps on appearing spontaneously–everywhere.  It is a wetland plant, but it grows anywhere in the sun–at least it does in my yard.  Clusters of large 2-4” lemon yellow daisy flowers bloom in the upper part of 3-8’ tall stems from mid-July through August.

Cup Plant at the corner of my garage

Like all the Silphium, there is a charming story to tell about it.  Its huge triangular opposite leaves encircle the thick square stem to form a cup that holds rainwater.  These little reservoirs provide water for birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and other insects.



Reservoir of rain water in its cup.










A Sea of Gold along my west side sidewalk.

This is mostly False Sunflower and Rosin Weed in bloom now.





3 Responses to Stupendous, Astonishing Silphium

  1. Barb Glassel July 27, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    O such Glorious silphiums! Thanks, Patricia, for sharing your great photos and descriptions of those tall beauties. My husband craves masses of “regular” sunflowers, and plants seed every spring, with little success. In fact, this year, zero germination. Probably we are meant to grow prairie dock, rosinweed and compass plant instead? Making plans…
    Thanks again!

  2. June Keibler July 27, 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    Just when I think I can’t stand to see another cupplant pushing it’s way into our prairie, I see a little chicadee or a goldfinch resting on that giant leaf and drinking from the “cup”. It is one of those perfect joinings in nature between plants and animals.


  1. A season in the Nebraska prairies, Part 2 | The Roaming Ecologist - September 15, 2013

    […] They are very large plants and are as cheery as the more common Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.).  A post on this blog provides more information (geared toward homeowners) on the most common Silphiums of North America: […]

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