I have many favorite native plants for many reasons, but one of the Ironweed (Vernonia altissima) plants which grows in my wet mesic prairie is a special favorite. Over the years, my Wild Ones Fox Valley Area Chapter has conducted plant rescues in conjunction with the widening of Wisconsin Highway 29. One such dig brought me this Ironweed plant.
It was just west of Fremont, I found this huge (and I mean huge; about 4 feet across and at least 6+ feet tall with the most beautiful fuschia colored blossoms and reddish colored stems) Ironweed plant growing along a small stream that flowed under Highway 29. It was so tall and majestic, I just couldn’t let it be destroyed by the bulldozer — or so I thought! I must have worked for several hours trying to pry my way through the stream bed and under the fibrous roots and rhizomes. I used every tool at my disposal. I dug and dug and dug…but to no avail. It would not budge; it was determined to stay entrenched in the spot it had chosen.
Finally, sweaty, dirty and wet, I managed to break off a small piece as my heart broke — a piece I cherish to this day. Every time I pass the spot where the stream still flows, I think of that beautiful Ironweed plant buried somewhere under twenty feet of soil topped by a concrete lane of highway, and my heart weeps. But the piece I was able to salvage still grows in my raingarden area, and I am so very grateful every season.
Tall Ironweed (Vernonia altissima)
There are many species of native ironweed growing throughout North America. The ironweed called Tall or Giant Ironweed (Vernonia altissima) has the largest range growing as far west as Iowa, north into Canada and south to Florida. It prefers fertile, medium to moist soils and full sun. As its name implies, it is a very tall plant growing anywhere from 5 to 10 feet in height. It is beloved by pollinators. A member of the Aster (Asteraceae) family, it is a host plant to the American Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis).
“The Tall Ironweed leaves are alternate (1 leaf per node), 6 to 10 inches long, less than 3 inches wide, lance-shaped, pointed at the tip, and toothed along the edge. On the lower surface of each leaf is a distinct white midrib. The upper leaf surface is hairless, but there are short, straight, downy, hairs on the lower surface with somewhat longer and denser hairs on the midrib.” (osu.edu)
It blossoms mid through late summer with the most iridescent purple flowers imaginable. It flowers in a dense cluster of blossoms with compound disk flowers shaped like flared tubes. It has both female (pistil) and male (stamen) parts, and is a prolific seed producer. But, its seed is viable for only a short period of time.
Because of its height, it makes a great statement plant but if you want to keep it that way, be sure to deadhead it before it can set seed.