Long before the days of magnetic compasses or global positioning systems which track our every movement and tell us where we are at any given time, there were and are, plants which aided the native Indians and later the pioneers traveling by covered wagon across the United States of America. Of course, when the sun was shining, anyone can tell his directions, but after many days of cloudy or stormy weather what could the wagon master do?
Behold! The humble compass plant, a rugged, drought-resistant native plant found in most tall-grass prairies which once dominated the wide Midwest. However, given its high palatability to livestock, it is seldom found in pastures utilising continuous grazing practices, but thrives on road banks and in managed grazing systems. Whilst other plants maybe referred to as ‘compass plants,’ the one most generally thought of is Silphium laciniatum, found on prairies from Ohio to South Dakota, south to Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas.
The compass plant, a perennial which can live up to 100 years, has a central stem which is thick, light to medium green covered with conspicuous white hairs. Large basal leaves cut almost to midrib have sandpaper-like texture with its alternate stem leaves having their edges vertical and nearly always pointing north and south. The six to twelve foot (two-four metres) mature plant, also called rosinweed or pilot plant, is topped by yellow flowers, which bloom mid-summer for about 1½ months. When blooming, the stalk is very resinous and, reportedly, Indian children gathered droplets of rosin from the upper parts of the stem, where the gum exudes, to use as chewing gum for ‘sweetening the breath’ and cleansing the teeth and mouth.’
The flower heads, which are three to four inches across, resemble those of a wild sunflower. However, unlike the sunflower, its seeds, which though large, are flat and light and can be carried several feet by the wind. In addition, like other Silphium spp., the small tubular disk florets are sterile, while the ray florets are fertile. Its drought resistance secret reveals itself if you try uprooting it for transplant; the taproot may reach to a depth of sixteen feet (five metres)!
Native people prized the root of the compass plant for its medicinal qualities. The Pawnees made a tea they used for ‘general debility’, while the Santee Dakotas, Poncas and the Omahas prepared a similar concoction to use as a horse tonic. Some Indian tribes burned the dried roots to ward off lightning during storms and some believed that lightning occurred more frequently where compass plant grew and did not camp in those areas. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, doctors also used the compass plant as the following: Antipyretic, diuretic, emetic, expectorant, tonic, styptic, antispasmodic, and stimulant.
Information for this article primarily drawn from the following resources:
- Scott, Flannery, Pizzo & Associates, Ltd Ecological Restoration, http://www.pizzo1.com/plants.php?acronym=SILLAC
- Hilty, John, http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/prairie/plantx/compassx.htm
Compass plant is an interesting flowering plant with many uses, not to mention that it is beautiful and palatable to livestock and wildlife. The indigenous people of the United States chewed the sap as gum. It’s notable that the location of the plant can indicate an underground water source; probably because the roots can grow as deep as 16 feet which could quite possibly increase the number of lightning strikes in the vicinity as believed by Native American Indians. Makes sense to me!
The best simple physical description is provided by the Missouri Department of Conservation:
Asteraceae (daisies, sunflowers)
Compass plant is a tall, showy, yellow rosinweed with hairy stems. Blooms July through September. Flower heads are few to many, arising from a tall stalk. The flower heads are about 2½ inches across, and both the petal-like ray flowers and the central disk flowers are yellow. Leaves are hairy and deeply cleft almost to the midrib, the lobes sometimes having secondary divisions. At the bottom of the plant, the leaves are huge — to 16 inches long — but the leaves are progressively smaller toward the top of the stem. In full sun, the upright lower leaves turn their edges toward north and south, with the flat surfaces facing east and west, giving compass plant its common name.
Similar species: There are 6 Silphium species recorded for Missouri. Aside from compass plant, the other most common ones are starry rosinweed, rosinweed, prairie dock, and cup plant. Compass plant is identified by its deeply cleft leaves.
Height: to about 8 feet.
The flower of the compass plant is another fine example of God’s orderly world. He created such order from the chaos of void as magnificently viewed in the Golden spiral of our universe, the Milky Way. This pattern is found throughout the earth in the curve of a bird’s beak, the shape of some seashells, the breaking of an ocean wave, even bacteria grow at an accelerating rate that can be plotted along a logarithmic spiral and so much more. While man has repeatedly copied this pattern in his architecture and painting, the mathematical symmetry of the Fibonacci pattern has a prior claim, and that is of our Creator and Lord.
First recorded discovery was in 500 BC by Pingala, an Indian mathematician, whose Sanskrit book on meters outlined what he called Chhandah-shastra. In addition to the basics of Fibonacci numbers, his work also contains the basis for binary numeral system and Pascal’s triangle and later, popularized in the west by Leonardo de Pasino Fibonacci about 1200 AD. Applications of Fibonacci numbers and sequencing are in the Euclid’s algorithm, Diophantine equation, and in binomial coefficients, as well as recognizable in music and art, and represented in many places in nature.1