Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
A very rare plant in western North Dakota, desert wirelettuce is restricted to portions of the central Great Plains including parts of Nebraska, Montana, and Wyoming.
Desert wirelettuce is perennial from a taproot. Stems and leaves have milky juice and may be smooth or slightly hairy. Plants are less than eight inches tall and only slightly branched. The largest leaves are at the base. These leaves are about three inches long and deeply incised with the tips of the resultant lobes pointing backwards. A few flower heads form at the ends of the branches. Each flower head usually has five pink ray flowers; there are no disc flowers. At maturity, tiny plumed achenes ("seeds" as in the dandelion) blow away on the winds.
Look for desert wirelettuce during July to August in coarse gravel or broken scoria in the badlands. Plants resemble the skeletonweeds to which they are closely related. There are not sufficient data to speculate on the effects of grazing on this species, for which there are no known economic uses.
The wirelettuces are members of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). Aster means "star" in Greek; the name is an allusion to the radiate arrangement of flowers into heads. These are often mistaken for a single flower by laypersons. The family contains over 15,000 species, more than in any other family in North Dakota as well as most countries in the North Temperate Zone.
Botanists compounded the genus Stephanomeria from the Greek for "wreath division." There are about two dozen species in this genus; all are native to western North America. The specific epithet runcinata means "coarsely serrate with teeth pointing towards the base" in botanical Latin. The eminent English botanist-naturalist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) first described desert wirelettuce for science in 1841. Nuttall visited the Mandan villages along the Missouri River in 1810-1811.