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Kevin Doyle

Kitten Tails (Besseya bullii)

Life history

Species overview

Kitten Tails (Besseya bullii), a State Threatened plant, is found commonly in small woodland openings, or near bluff edges. Blooming occurs late May through late June; fruiting occurs late June through late August. The optimal identification period for this species is late May through late August.

Synonyms: Gymnandra bullii, Synthyris bullii, Wulfenia bullii


  • Distinguishing characteristics: Basal leaves long-petioled, egg-shaped, palmately veined, with toothed margins; flowers small, yellow, born in a tall, erect spike.
  • Flower characteristics: Flowers small, yellow and born at the top of a 5 to 15 cm long spike.
  • Fruit characteristics: 4 to 7 mm long and covered with very small, course, stiff hairs.
  • Leaf characteristics: Basal leaves toothed, palmately veined, egg-shaped, 6 to 12 cm long with long petioles; leaves further up the stem alternate, egg-shaped or oblong, 1 to 2 cm long with no petioles.


  • Blooming phenology: late May through late June
  • Fruiting phenology: late June through late August
  • Optimum time to identify: late May through late August


  • Growth form: Forb-erect
  • Vegetative reproduction:
  • Life cycle: Perennial
  • Comments: Associated Species: Quercus alba, Q. macrocarpa, Q. velutina, Juniperus virginiana, Betula papyrifera, Amorpha canescens, Andropogon scoparius.

State status

Status and Natural Heritage Inventory documented occurrences in Wisconsin

The table below provides information about the protected status - state and federal - and the rank (S and G Ranks) for Kitten Tails (Besseya bullii). See the Working List Key for more information about abbreviations. Counties shaded blue have documented occurrences for this species in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database. The map is provided as a general reference of where this species has been found to date and is not meant as a range map.

Documented locations of Besseya bullii in the Natural Heritage Inventory Database as of July 2015.

Summary Information
State StatusTHR
Federal Status in Wisconsinnone
State RankS3
Global RankG3
Tracked by NHIY

Habitats and landscapes

The Natural Heritage Inventory has developed scores indicating the degree to which each of Wisconsin's rare plant species is associated with a particular natural community or ecological landscape. This information is similar to that found in the Wildlife Action Plan for animals. As this is a work in progress, we welcome your suggestions and feedback.

General habitat information

  • Habitat description: Found commonly in small woodland openings, or near bluff edges.
  • Soils: Sandy soils.

Natural communities

This table lists the natural communities that are associated with Kitten Tails. Scores for natural community associations are: "significant" association (score=3), "moderate association" (score=2) or the species can be present but is only weakly associated with the community (score=1).

Ecological landscapes

This table lists the ecological landscape association scores for Kitten Tails. The scores (3=High, 2=Moderate, 1=Low, 0=None) also correspond to the map.

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Species guidance

The Endangered Resources Program has developed avoidance measures and management guidelines for plants on the Natural Heritage Working List. These are a work in progress, and we welcome your suggestions and feedback. Sources used in developing this information can be found here.

Avoidance measures

These are specific actions designed to avoid "take" (mortality) of this species.

  • Avoid known individual plant locations and conduct operations elsewhere when they are least likely to cause damage. Ideally, this would involve frozen, snow-covered ground. However, in areas of the state where frozen conditions are unreliable, very dry soils late in the growing season might be the best available alternative. Consult with a biologist, if needed.
  • Avoid broadcast spraying of herbicides; use care with spot spraying.

Management guidance

Management guidelines are additional considerations that may help maintain or enhance habitat for this species

  • Maintain and restore open habitat through selective clearing and brushing.
  • Prescribed burns and/or brushing may be beneficial (dependent on local site conditions).


Kitten Tails  Photo.

Remnant savannas and open oak woodlands, especially on the west-facing bluffs above the St. Croix River, support populations of the globally rare, WI Threatened kitten tails.

Photo © Robert H. Read.

Kitten Tails  Photo.

Kitten-tails in a savanna with bur oak in the background.

Photo by Ryan O'Connor, Wisconsin DNR.

Kitten Tails  Photo.

Besseya bullii at Albany SWA.

Photo by Rich Staffen, Wisconsin DNR.

Kitten Tails  Photo.

Photo by Thomas Meyer, Wisconsin DNR.

Kitten Tails  Photo.

Photo by  staff, Wisconsin DNR.

Kitten Tails  Photo.

Photo by Thomas Meyer, Wisconsin DNR.

Kitten Tails  Photo.

Photo © Richard Bauer.

Kitten Tails  Photo.

Photo by Armund Bartz, Wisconsin DNR.

Kitten Tails  Photo.

Photo by Armund Bartz, Wisconsin DNR.

Kitten Tails  Photo.

Photo by Armund Bartz, Wisconsin DNR.

Kitten Tails  Photo.

Photo © Kitty Kohout.

Kitten Tails  Photo.

Photo © Kitty Kohout.

Support for Wisconsin's rare plant information has been provided by the Division of Forestry, the Endangered Resources Fund and the Wisconsin Rare Plant Preservation Fund. To donate, visit the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin [exit DNR].

Last revised: Thursday, September 24, 2015
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