For the last couple of weeks, I have enjoyed seeing patches of pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) along the roadside. Unlike coltsfoot, another early spring wildflower, pussytoes are native to North America and can be found across Canada and the northern states. It is easy to see how they come by their name. Each stem holds a cluster of small fuzzy heads that can readily be envisioned as the digits of felines. Pussytoes are members of the aster family, and each flowerhead is actually a composite of many tiny flowers growing together on mass.
Pussytoes spread by rhizomes, so a clump is composed of clones of the original plant. They are diecious, meaning that female flowers and male flowers grow on separate plants. Thus, a clump of pussytoes contains either all male or all female flowers. The female flowers don’t require male flowers to reproduce and in the absence of nearby male plants, can still produce seed. This process is termed parthenogenesis, a name derived from the Greek for virgin birth.
The male staminate plants can be identified by their orange-brown anthers protruding out above the flowers like an insect’s antennae, presumably the source of the scientific name, Antennaria. As for the species name, neglecta, one source I came across suggested it reflected the fact that the flowers are easily overlooked, or neglected. A more convincing version stated that botanists named the species neglecta because its status as a separate species was overlooked for many years. Not until 1897 was the plant officially described for science by Edward Greene (1843-1915), first professor of botany at the University of California.