Plants of the genus Tragopogon are commonly called "Goatsbeards" while the different species within the genus have various, sometimes confusing, common names. Goatsbeards are a close relation to the Hawkweeds. Yellow Salsify is an introduced and naturalized erect biennial reaching to 3 feet in height on stems that sometimes branch near the base. Stems are initially covered with flattened matted hairs that then turn woolly and drop off leaving a smooth mature stem. Stems are green but most pick up a reddish tint, hollow, and contain a milky sap.
The leaves are both basal and stem, clasping and grass-like, but wide, with straight pointed tips, not twisting or recurving. Margins are smooth, the surfaces are like the stem - matted flattened hairs initially, then becoming smooth. Stem leaves are alternate. The first year plant produces a basal rosette.
The floral array is a single terminal flower head on a long stalk. The stalk enlarges (or inflates) below the flower head.
The flowers are about 1 1/2 inches wide and composed of 30 to 50+ pale yellow fertile ray florets, the outer ones much longer than the inner, and with 5 small teeth at the tip. Anthers of the five stamens are black and the style is bifurcated. The outer green phyllaries, which usually number between 8 and 12 and are usually in one series, are distinctively longer than the outer ray florets. They are very narrow and sharply pointed. Like T. pratensis, the Meadow Goatsbeard, the flower opens early and is frequently closed by early afternoon.
Seed: Fertile florets produce a long thin ribbed brown seed (a cypsela) with a whitish beak to which is attached a fluffy tannish-white pappus. This feathery down on each seed is interlaced forming a tall narrow cup-like structure. This structure is easily taken up by the wind.
Habitat: Yellow Salsify grows in disturbed places with moderate to dry moisture conditions, various soil types, and establishes a large taproot. It propagates by re-seeding and is frequently seen on roadsides and other untended patches of ground.
Names: "Goatsbeard" refers to the fuzzy seed head. See bottom of page for some notes on name confusion. The genus Tragopogon is from two Greek words, tragos, meaning 'goat' and pogon, meaning 'beard'. The species, dubius, means 'doubtful'. The author name for the plant classification, ‘Scop.,’ is for Giovanni Antonio Scopoli (1723-1788), Tyrolean naturalist who studied and published on plants, insects, animals and birds of the Tyrol. The genus Scopolia is named for him. An older synonym for the scientific name is Tragopogon major.
Comparisons: Yellow Salsify differs from T. pratensis, the Meadow Goatsbeard, where the leaves are backward curving, the flower bracts, while just visible beyond the rays, are much shorter and the flower stalk is not enlarged below the flower head. T. pratensis is also found in more moist sites - see comparison below.
Above: Note the green phyllaries much longer than the outer yellow rays. The stem leaves are clasping, straight and do not curve backwards
Below: 1st photo - note the green phyllaries and the enlargment of the stem just below the flower. The yellow rays are significantly shorter in length than the phyllaries. 2nd photo - A closed flower head turning to seed production. The seed head shown on the Meadow Goatsbeard page is virtually identical. 3rd photo - the hollow stem and the milky juice.
Below: 1st photo - The seed head with tannish-white pappus attached to the long narrow seed. 2nd photo - Remnants of the flattened stem hair in the woolly state before dropping off.
Comparison: Compare the flowers of Yellow Salsify, 1st photo, with the similar Meadow Goatsbeard, T. pratensis L., 2nd photo.
Notes: Yellow Salsify is a European import and is now found throughout all of Canada and the United States except for four southern states. In Minnesota it has been found in all but a small number of widely scattered counties. Martha Crone did not note its presence in her 1951 Garden Census, nor was it listed on the 1986 census but was present in 2009. It is not considered as a typical foodstuff although the young stems and the root can be eaten raw or cooked. In some areas it is considered invasive.
Names: There are only two species of Tragopogon normally found in Minnesota: T. dubius, Yellow Salsify; and T. pratensis, Meadow Goatsbeard. It must be noted that some references use different common names - up to 10 are in circulation. We use here the common names used by Flora of North America, the University of Minnesota Herbarium and the Minnesota DNR. The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden census has these differently - applying Meadow Goatsbeard to T. dubius. Another reason to use scientific names.
Older Lore on Goatsbeards: Gerard (Ref.#6a) writes: "It shutteth itselfe at twelve of the clocke, and sheweth not his face open until the next daies Sunne do make it flower anew. Where-upon it was called go-to-bed-at-noone; when these flowers be come to their full maturitie and ripenesse it groweth into a downie blowe-ball like those of Dandelion, that is carried awaie with the winde. The seede is long, having at the ende one peece of that downie matter hanging at it."
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"