Elephant's Foot

Elephantopus carolinianus

elephants_foot_flowers_01-01-14.jpg

Photo of elephant's foot closeup of flowers
You may not recognize elephant’s foot as a member of the sunflower family because it lacks petal-like ray florets. Also, it has unusual, doubly compound flower clusters.
Family

Asteraceae (daisies)

Description

Elephant's foot is a much-forked, stout, shrublike plant bearing flat clusters of light lavender to white flowers. Flowerheads are composites that have only disk florets, with no ray florets. Each flowerhead contains many small clusters with only 2 to 5 florets, subtended by a few leaflike bracts to about 1 inch long. This makes the genus an unusual member of the sunflower family. Blooms August–October. Leaves scattered along stems, alternate, oval, obliquely toothed, the lower ones narrowed rather abruptly at the base, the upper ones normally sessile (stalkless) and quite small.

This plant looks very similar to the closely related ironweeds (Vernonia). Unlike them, elephant’s foot has its primary flowerheads grouped together into dense, headlike clusters. Ironweeds have separate flowerheads that are not grouped into such secondary clusters.

Size

Height: to 3 feet.

Elephants_Foot_8-24-14.JPG

Photo of an elephant's foot flowerhead, viewed from side
Elephant's Foot Flowerhead
Elephant's foot flowerheads are doubly compound: each flowerhead contains several clusters, each with 2 to 5 florets.
Habitat and conservation

Occurs in wooded valleys, lowlands, openings in woods, banks of streams and rivers, pastures, and roadsides. Although the lowest leaves can be quite large, the name “elephant’s foot” apparently came from tropical members in the same genus, which do have bottom leaves large enough to suggest the feet of elephants.

image of Elephant's Foot Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Scattered, mostly south of the Missouri River.

Human connections

This drought-tolerant plant can be used in native plant gardens, prairies, and woodland gardens. It has showy flowers and reportedly grows well in relatively dry and sandy soils. If you mass the plants, the large lower leaves make it a good groundcover.

Ecosystem connections

Late-blooming wildflowers like this provide nectar for insects, including many butterflies, wasps, beetles, and bees, that are active in late summer and early fall. The multitude of roots from thousands of herbaceous plants permeate the top soil and prevent erosion.