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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Shooting stars appear when April soils warm. © Donna Krischan

April 2003

Stellar bloomer

A flower named for Greek gods fires across the prairie.

Anita Carpenter

Shooting stars appear when April soils warm.

© Donna Krischan

In the nighttime sky, shooting stars, so fleeting, unreachable and unpredictable, stir my imagination. In May, shooting stars of another kind and dimension grace Wisconsin's prairies. They share the rich soil with puccoons, prairie smoke, violets, wood betony and blue-eyed grass. In this colorful mix of blooms, shooting stars stand tall.

Young shooting stars first appear in the warming April soil sprouting strap-like leaves from a basal rosette. The three- to eight-inch leaves hug the ground hidden among the dried prairie grasses. Soon the plant sends up a stiff flowering stalk that may grow 24 inches tall. The stalk, or scape, is topped with a small cluster, or umbel, of enlarging buds that point upward. When the flower opens, its five white, deeply-cut petals twist and fold over giving each blossom a swept-back appearance. The stalk bends over and the flowers point down. When the bloom is fully open, it is tipped with a yellow pointed beak. Looking at the 4 to 25 delicate drooping flowers on each plant, it's easy to see their resemblance to shooting stars.

Unlike their celestial namesake, terrestrial shooting stars are not as fleeting. Pollinated flowers fade from white to shades of pink. A maturing reddish-brown capsule encloses the tiny seeds and straightens up so the barrel-shaped capsules are held upright like tiny candelabras. Seeds are released the following spring. If the seeds germinate and new plants survive, three to four years may elapse before the first flowers appear. In undisturbed prairies, these perennial shooting stars may live to be very old plants.

Shooting stars belong to the primrose family, Primulaceae. The plant we are most familiar with, Dodecatheon meadia, is just one of 13 shooting star species found in North America. Its genus name, Dodecatheon, is from the Greek word dodeka meaning twelve and theos meaning god. The ancient Roman scholar and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, named a similar spring primrose for the 12 principal gods and goddesses; the top-ranked Olympians of Greek mythology.

Seventeen hundred years passed. Discovery of New World flora and fauna was in full swing. From 1722-26 Mark Catesby, an English naturalist spent time in South Carolina and Georgia collecting plants and sending them back to England. One of these newly discovered plants was the shooting star. The Swede, Linneaus, credited some 250 years ago with originating the plant and animal classification system we use today, retained this plant retaining the genus name, Dodecatheon, and called the species meadia, to honor British physician and scientific patron Dr. Richard Mead.

As you stand in a Wisconsin prairie gazing upon the fragile-looking shooting stars, let your mind wander and wonder. Think of this simple flower, its relationship to ancient peoples and to the mythology we should have studied more diligently in school! I like the unique look of shooting stars. They are just one reason I must visit prairies each spring to renew my acquaintance with flowering companions.

Anita Carpenter wanders prairies, woods and fields from her home in Oshkosh.