Aster family (Asteraceae)
Description: This herbaceous plant is usually a biennial that consists of a rosette of basal leaves during the 1st year. During the 2nd year, it sends up one or more flowering stalks about 1-3' tall that are little branched. The round stems are glabrous, often becoming somewhat enlarged at the base of the cauline leaves. These alternate leaves are up to 1' long and ¾" across, becoming smaller as they ascend the stems. They are linear-lanceolate, glabrous, and smooth along the margins. Each leaf has parallel venation and strongly clasps the stem at its base. The basal leaves are similar in appearance to the cauline leaves. Both the stems and leaves are pale greyish green or bluish green, and they contain a white milky latex. The upper stems terminate in long naked flowering stalks, each stalk producing a single flowerhead. The flowering stalk becomes enlarged underneath the flowerhead.
Each flowerhead is about 2" across, consisting of numerous ray florets that are pale yellow and about 13 linear-lanceolate floral bracts that are about the same color as the stems and leaves. These floral bracts extend beyond the outer margin of the flowerhead as defined by the ray florets. The outer ray florets are substantially longer than the inner ray florets. Each ray floret has an outer tip with 5 small teeth; it is either truncated or rounded. At the base of each ray floret, there is a columnar reproductive structure consisting of a style that is divided at its tip and several black anthers that are appressed together around the middle of the style. The blooming period occurs from late spring to mid-summer and lasts about 1–1½ months. The flowerheads open during the early morning, but become closed by the afternoon. Each ray floret is replaced by a linear achene that has a thread-like beak, to which is attached a tuft of hairs. These hairs are slightly branched and plumose. They are usually white toward the base, but become tawny brown toward their tips. Collectively, these tufts of hair form a spherical ball about 3" across. Distribution of the achenes is by the wind. The root system consists of a fleshy taproot. This plant spreads by reseeding itself.
Cultivation: The preference is full sun, mesic to dry conditions, and poor soil that contains sand, clay, or gravel. This plant will also grow in fertile loam, where it will become taller.
Range & Habitat: Western Goat's Beard is a common plant in most areas of Illinois, except the SW, where it is occasional or absent (see Distribution Map). This plant is adventive from Eurasia, and it is now common in the northern Great Plains and many areas of midwestern United States. Habitats include areas along railroads and roadsides, dry weedy meadows, vacant lots, pastures, and waste areas. This plant prefers disturbed areas.
Faunal Associations: The nectar and pollen of the flowerheads attract various bees and flies. Because the milky white latex of the foliage is bitter, this plant is usually avoided by livestock and other mammalian herbivores.
Photographic Location: Along a railroad in Urbana, Illinois. The photograph of the flowerhead shows part of a large flower bud on the left.
Comments: Western Goat's Beard appears to prefer drier habitats than other Tragopogon spp. (Goat's Beards) in Illinois. While Tragopogon pratensis (Yellow Goat's Beard) is often found in grassy areas along roadside ditches, Western Goat's Beard typically occurs along railroads in dry gravelly areas. These two species have a very similar appearance and can be difficult to tell apart. However, Yellow Goat's Beard has floral bracts that are shorter and fewer in number (there are about 8 bracts that extend to the outer margin of the ray florets, but usually not beyond), and its foliage tends to be less pale than the foliage of Western Goat's Beard. The other species in this genus, Tragopogon porrifolius (The Oyster Plant), is sometimes cultivated as a root vegetable in gardens, from where it occasionally escapes. However, the flowerheads of the Oyster Plant are purple, rather than yellow. Another common name for Tragopogon dubius is Sand Goat's Beard.