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Earth Notes: San Francisco Ragwort

A plant with a cluster of blue-green leaves and several mostly-closed yellow flowers that resemble dandelions with purple jackets.
Courtesy of Zechariah Jacob
San Francisco Ragwort

The San Francisco Peaks ragwort stands sentry over northern Arizona from its home on the San Francisco peaks. It grows close to the earth in unassuming, flat-topped clusters of blue-green leaves. This perennial herb grows in the only true alpine tundra in Arizona, at the very top of Humphreys and Agassiz Peaks, and nowhere else in the world.

Its purple-tinged, woolly stems shiver as endless gales blow seeds across the summit that settle in ancient rock creases. Just a few centimeters tall, the ragwort’s yellow flowers make a striking contrast to the barren, rocky landscape from July to early September.

Despite nearly-inhospitable conditions, this unimposing dwarf aster grows in the exposed, sunny volcanic slopes of the highest point in the southwestern United States. By spreading out steadfast shoots and adventurous roots, the plant anchors itself into any available stable surface and contributes to erosion control.

When western scientists first observed ragwort in 1884, they described the species as “plentiful,” yet years of increased recreation in the area, paired with shifting climatic conditions, led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the species as “threatened” in 1983. In response to this, land managers have enacted recreation restrictions and shifted popular trails away from known populations.

The conservation of the San Francisco Peaks ragwort depends on visitors’ commitment to stay on designated trails, enjoying the beauty of the landscape while minimizing their impact on the delicate habitat of this resilient alpine plant.

This Earth Note was written by Danika Thiele and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Note: this story has been updated with the full name "San Francisco Peaks ragwort" in place of "San Francisco ragwort."

Danika Thiele is a Florida transplant, art enthusiast and environmental science writer. She worked previously as a food security and sanitation volunteer with Peace Corps Nepal. With her background in both agriculture and journalism, Danika combines her curiosity with the natural world to produce stories stemming from nature's peculiarities. You can catch Danika exploring the forest with her adventure partner, Dolly the supermutt.
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