Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Nearly every county in North Dakota is home to the skeleton-weed. The plant is a true prairie and plains dweller that occurs mainly in the great crescent of grasslands that extends from Alberta to Texas, at elevations under 7,500 ft.
No one can fail to recognize skeleton-weed in the field. The plant looks like a slender bare branch about six inches to a foot tall, but close inspection will reveal a few tiny needle-like leaves on the upper branches. Single pink flower heads about one-half inch wide appear at the tips of the branches. Each head contains five flowers. Skeleton-weed is a perennial from long taproots. Fruits are achenes bearing bristles to aid in transport by wind.
Look for skeleton-weed in dry, light-textured soils. The plant seems to decrease only slightly with heavy grazing in our area, and sometimes invades cropland. Native Americans in the Missouri Valley used a latex derived from skeleton-weed for chewing gum.
Skeleton-weed is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). This family contains over 15,000 species and is one of the largest plant families in the world and the largest in North Dakota. The generic name stems from the Greek lygos, "a pliant twin," and desme, "a bundle," from the dense twiggy appearance. The specific epithet juncea means "stiff" in botanical Latin. Skeleton-weed was first described for science by the German botanist Frederick Pursh in 1829. Pursh was the first to publish upon the many new plants collected by the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806.