With chilly weather on the way, most of us are pulling our fuzzy coats out of the back of the closet.
A new species of daisy already has itself covered—and what a cool-looking coat.
Researchers found Coespeletia palustris during an expedition high in the páramo ecosystem of the Venezuelan Andes—at elevations above 12,450 feet (3,800 meters)—where most species of Coespeletia grow. Mauricio Diazgranados, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian Institution, and Gilberto Morillo, professor at the Universidad de Los Andes in Mérida, Venezuela, found the flower on expeditions partially funded by the National Geographic Society. They published a description of the new fuzzy flower in the November issue of the journal PhytoKeys.
The downward droop of the flower—known as an inflorescence—on C. palustris is termed a nodding, or dropping, capitulum. This posture, along with its unusually fuzzy coat, helps to insulate the daisy from the often harsh climate of its mountain habitat. That habitat, the páramo ecosystem, is the most diverse high-elevation environment in the world. It sits between the treeline and the snowline of the Andes, and it’s a place that’s usually wet and chilly.
“Hairs cover the entire plant, as in most of the species of the subtribe Espeletiinae. Species of this subtribe are probably some of the hairiest plants known,” Diazgranados wrote in an email. Many species in the Coespeletia genus that grow in marshes or wet páramos at high elevations tend to have drooping flowers covered by a series of leaflike structures just under the face of the flower, he explained. “This seems to be an adaptation to keep the flowers dry under the adverse climate conditions, so their pollen can be dispersed more easily by wind, insects, and hummingbirds.”
But now that we’ve found this hairy daisy, we may already be on our way to losing it.
“High-elevation marshes and wetlands are among the ecosystems which are most impacted by climate change,” the study authors write. “Therefore this species may be at a certain risk of extinction as well.”
This newly discovered species is just one of many downy or feathery plants, some of which people seem keen on turning into garden plants or houseplants. Here are a few other examples of some fuzzy flora.
Rabbit’s Foot Fern
Not every fuzzy plant is as lovely as C. palustris. Take the rabbit’s foot fern, Davallia fejeensis, for instance. It’s also known as the squirrel foot fern or the deer foot fern, but so far no one has officially called it the big scary tarantula leg fern, even though that’s just what its rhizomes look like. This fern is a native of Fiji, and those hairy rhizomes—thickened plant stems with roots coming out below and shoots coming out above—draw water from the air around them. It prefers shady, humid places and is a common houseplant—and not just with the Addams Family.
Old Man Cactus and Old Lady Cactus
Covered with “hairs” that are actually modified spines, the old man cactus, aka the old man of Mexico (Cephalocereus senilis) can tower up to 50 feet (15 meters) in the wild. Those at least 20 years old sprout night-blooming flowers. Their spines, which can be long and silky with a gray-white appearance, protect the cactus from harsh sun and are thickest on the top of the plant. The old man cactus also sports regular spines, which lie underneath its hair.
Like many humans, old man cactus has a companion, the old woman cactus—otherwise known as old lady of Mexico or old lady pincushion (Mammillaria hahniana). Also a Mexican native, the old lady boasts a green stem, silver-gray spines, and a beautiful crown of pink flowers that turn into red fruits. They can be quite dazzling—this one looks like a cake you might give to someone you didn’t like.
The word chenille (French for caterpillar) conjures images of cushy bathrobes and lovely bedspreads. And the long, fluffy flowers of the chenille plant (Alcalypha hispida) are as soft as their namesake. It’s a native of New Guinea and the East Indies, but it’s a favorite houseplant because of its strange and gorgeous flowers that hang down like a tail. Indeed, they’re sometimes called red-hot cat’s tail. The male flowers grow separately from the female flowers; the latter are gathered in elongated clusters of red or purple flowers and can grow to be up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) long.
Only the undersides of the milkweed’s leaves are fuzzy, but the plant’s seeds are carried aloft by downy, feathery plumes known as floss or silk. Milkweed silk is a hollow, wax-coated fiber so buoyant it was used in life jackets during World War II.
But in addition to saving human lives, milkweed is a boon to another organism: butterflies.
Monarch butterfly larvae feed almost exclusively on the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), which contains a mildly poisonous milky white sap (hence the name) that puts most predators off. The adult monarch, though, eats enough of it to have acquired an immunity, and their larvae even store and carry the toxins into the adult stage, making predators wary of them.
Monarchs have been in decline in Mexico and parts of the U.S. since 1999, and a decline in milkweed is cited as one of the main causes. “In the U.S., the growing use of genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant crops, such as corn and soybeans, has resulted in severe milkweed declines and thus loss of breeding habitat,” said Karen Oberhauser, monarch biologist at the University of Minnesota, in a news release.
Oberhauser co-authored a study published last month that found that Americans would pay big money—up to $6.5 billion extrapolated over all U.S. households—for conservation of the monarch through donations and the purchase of monarch-friendly plants.