Western, or Baldwin's ironweed is one of five species of ironweeds in Missouri. Ironweeds are tough, grayish-green, branching perennials known for their fluffy-looking clusters of reddish-purple florets. Western ironweed is the most common and widespread of Missouri's ironweeds.
Leaves are alternate, hairy, lance-shaped, sharply pointed at both ends, with short stems, to about 6 inches long. The undersurface is covered with more or less evenly distributed, relatively long, often bent or tangled hairs. The margins are usually finely toothed, less commonly coarsely toothed.
Flowerheads are numerous, rose-purple (occasionally white), with 17–34 florets per head. The involucral bracts (overlapping, scale-like structures at the base of the heads) are commonly short-tapered to a sharply pointed tip that is loosely ascending or curving, curling, or spreading back, usually with abundant minute, impressed resin glands on both sides of the noticeably keeled midvein. Blooms May-September.
Learn more about Missouri’s ironweeds on their group page.
Similar species: There are five Vernonia species in Missouri. The two most similar to western ironweed are tall ironweed (V. gigantea) and Missouri ironweed (V. missurica). The long-pointed, backward-curling bracts at the base of the flowerheads identify western ironweed; western ironweed also tends to grow in drier habitats, begins blooming earlier in the season, and, compared to tall and Missouri ironweeds, it is stouter and has wider leaves.
Keep in mind that when different species of ironweeds grow near each other, they often hybridize, producing offspring that resemble a blend of their parent species.
Height: about 2–5 feet.
Scattered to common nearly statewide; less common in parts of northern Missouri and the Bootheel.
Habitat and Conservation
Occurs in upland prairies, glades, upland forests, sometimes on banks of streams and edges of ponds, also pastures, fencerows, old fields, railroads, roadsides, and other open, disturbed areas.
This is by far the most abundant ironweed species in Missouri.
Ironweeds are a familiar sight on roadsides and pastures. They often indicate overgrazing, as cattle apparently avoid eating them.
Native perennial wildflower.
Ironweeds were used medicinally by Native Americans, mostly as pain relievers.
Some species of ironweeds are being researched for possible use in modern medicines.
Ironweeds are generally unwelcome on pastures, where their bitterness makes them distasteful to cattle.
Although herbivorous mammals such as deer and rabbits apparently find the foliage distasteful, butterflies, bees, and other insects are attracted to the flowers.
Goldfinches and other seed-eating birds eat the seeds when they develop in late summer and fall.