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Native Wildflowers of the North Dakota Grasslands

JPG -- species photo

Owl Clover (Orthocarpus luteus)

About this time of year, a stroll across the Dakota prairies should reveal owl clover. This species does not occur much farther east than western Minnesota but can be found westward to British Columbia and south to Texas and California at elevations up to 10,000 ft.

Owl clover has several dozen flowers arranged on a narrow, leafy spike. The flowers are bright lemon yellow and bloom a few at a time. Leaves are rough-hairy and divided into three segments. The plants are up to a foot tall. Owl clover has small roots because it is an annual which must start from seed each spring. Plants may parasitize the roots of other plants. Fruits are narrow capsules filled with tiny seeds.

Look for owl clover on the dry uplands in native pastures. Grazing intensity seems to have little effect on the abundance of this species. I have no idea why this plant received the colloquial name "owl clover," although the rounded tops of the plants do resemble owls' heads, with the projecting flowers forming the "ears."

This plant is a member of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae) which derives its name from the supposed cure of scrophula and fiywarts attributed to these plants by early medical practitioners. The generic name Orthocarpus stems from the Greek orthos, "straight," and karpos, "fruit," in reference to the shape of the seed capsules. The specific name luteus means "yellow." Owl clover was first described for science in 1818 by the eminent English botanist Thomas Nuttall who explored what now is North Dakota in 1811.

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