Larry Lyons: It’s the year of the ironweed

Published 11:41 am Thursday, August 20, 2009

lyons1Us wildflower geeks always have a few plants that we are especially fond of. One of mine is ironweed and this seems to be the year of the ironweed.

Normally you just see an occasional plant here or there but this year it seems to be everywhere. Three new plants have appeared here on my property. Driving down most any road you see it in the moist ditches mixed in with purple loosestrife. Despite purple loosestrife’s bad reputation as an aggressive invader, you have to admit it is pretty. It doesn’t match the deep purple of the ironweed flower, though.

I first encountered ironweed at our property near Marcellus.  I had just become bitten by the prairie bug and was checking out a fallow field for prairie potential. Here was this plant nearly as tall as I was with large clusters of intense purple flowers. Not having a clue what it was I just thumbed through my wildflower book hoping to find a similar picture. Unfortunately, this book didn’t have a decent ironweed picture. I spared it the herbicide when I installed my prairies and over the next couple years admired the richly colored blooms but still wasn’t sure what it was. Then I attended a fen restoration seminar put on by the Indiana DNR. The class was mucking around in a fen when I saw several of these plants and asked the biologist what it was. That’s when my mystery plant acquired a name.

Ironweed is in the Aster family. Worldwide there are over a thousand species of ironweed with seventeen or so native to North America. Here in the Michiana area the one most likely encountered is tall ironweed. The books say it can reach heights over 10 feet but all I have encountered seem to be a fairly uniform five to six feet tall. The small, radial flowers grow in clusters of about 30 blooms at the top of the plant. Here in our area they started blooming about two weeks ago and are in their prime right now. Its preferred habitat is open, moist areas but it will make do most anywhere. Two of my five plants are at a dry wood edge.  One is on the drain field near our house and the other two where they’re supposed to be, along the pond edge.

Ironweed gets its name from the tough, fibrous stem which is hard to pull out or cut. In fact, the long, slender stems were sometimes used for kite building. Some of the European species are used as an herb for flavoring foods but most of the species over here are bitter and unpalatable.  Not even cattle or wildlife will eat it. Ironweed extract does have certain medicinal qualities, though. It was once used for stomach ailments and for easing child birth pains.  Modern science confirms a chemical in ironweed acts as a blood purifier that prevents and may even help cure arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries to us aging laypersons. Wikipedia, the Internet know-it-all, says ironweed tones the uterus. So, you gals reminiscing about the good old days – no, don’t think I’ll go there.

Ironweed is a great nectar flower for butterflies and bees and the bloom timing of late summer and early fall fills a void. The black-eyed susans, milkweeds and many other nectar flowers are pretty much done and the asters and other fall bloomers have not yet started. If you have a butterfly garden or would like a tall flower that doesn’t sprawl out for landscaping the seeds are easy to collect. They are the “fluff and fly” type that has a downy parachute with the seed at the bottom like milkweed.  Keep an eye on the plant after blooming. When the clumps of down appear from the seed head pull it off, bringing the seeds with it. It should come off very easy. If not, it’s not quite ready.  Sow by simply pressing the seeds and fluff onto bare ground. And remember, never take more then half the seeds from any wildflower plant. Ma nature needs her share, too.

Carpe diem.

Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at