Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
An outstanding early spring flower, yellow tufted milk-vetch is widespread in western North Dakota, and has been found as far east as Steele County. Sometimes called "plains orophaca," the species is generally restricted to the northern half of the Great Plains.
The growth form of yellow tufted milk-vetch is termed "cushion," a low, tufted appearance caused by short and densely aggregated stems and flower stalks. The cushion growth form is an adaptation to dry, windswept sites. There is little stem development on this plant; instead, the silvery leaves arise almost directly from the branched crown of a heavy taproot. Yellow tufted milk-vetch stands about three inches tall. Nestled under the numerous tri-foliate leaves are several dozen creamy or yellowish-white flowers about an inch long. Pods (legumes) are slightly under 1/2 inch long, hairy, and filled with yellowish to blackish seeds.
Look for tufted milk-vetch on the tops of hills and buttes. The species withstands grazing very well, which indicates it probably has little forage value. Some milk-vetches are poisonous to livestock; others are used for foods, medicines and many other purposes, but yellow tufted milk-vetch seemingly has none of these properties.
This plant is a member of the bean family (Fabaceae). Fab means "bean" in Latin. The generic name Astragalus is an ancient Greek name for some member of the bean family. The specific epithet gilviflorus means "yellow-flowered" in botanical Latin. This species was first described for science by Edmund Sheldon in the 1890's.