A search of the highest, driest hilltops on the native prairies of North Dakota likely will result in the discovery of cutleaf ironplant. The species is restricted to the crescent of grasslands that arcs from Alberta to Texas and northern Mexico, at elevations under 7,500 ft.
Cutleaf ironplant is a perennial 4-16 inches tall. Several dozen stems arise from the crown of a heavy taproot. The small, highly dissected leaves are bristle-tipped and bright silvery-gray due to the dense covering of loose, wooly hairs. Fruits are tiny achenes bearing yellow-brown bristles to aid in dissemination by wind. Stems may be simple and bear a single flower head, or branched and bear numerous heads. Flower heads are bright yellow and up to an inch wide.
In our area, cutleaf ironplant is most commonly found in heavily or moderately grazed pastures, but never becomes sufficiently abundant to be considered a nuisance by cattlemen. The Navajo used the leaves and roots of cutleaf ironplant to relieve the pain of toothache.
This plant is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae) in which many flowers are grouped into heads. Aster means "star" in Greek, in reference to the radiate arrangement of the flowers in the heads. The generic name is from the Greek haplous, "single," and pappos, "down," concerning the simple bristles at the base of each flower. The specific epithet spinulosus means "bearing slender small spines" in botanical Latin. Cutleaf ironplant was first described for science by the German botanist Frederick Pursh, who was the first to publish upon the many plant specimens collected during the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806.