Plant of the Week
Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)
By Walter Fertig
One of the key characteristics of members of the sunflower family (Asteraceae or Compositae) is the presence of an involucre of modified leaves or bracts that surrounds the petal-like ray and tubular disk flowers within a flower head. Although there is great variation among composites in the type and number of flowers within a head, all composites have an involucre. Usually, the bracts are green and leaf-like, but in one group (or “tribe” as subgroups of the Asteraceae are called), the Inuleae, the bracts are white and membranous or woolly rather than green and leafy. Species in the Inuleae tribe include the pussytoes (Antennaria), cudweeds (Gnaphalium and Pseudognaphalium), and everlastings (Anaphalis). Over 100 species of Anaphalis are recognized in India, south Asia, and Europe, but only one (A. margaritacea) occurs naturally in North America. Our species is commonly called pearly everlasting for the pearl-white involucre bracts that surround the yellow disk flowers and superficially resemble rays. These bracts remain fresh in appearance long after the central disk flowers have wilted, making them well suited for dried flower arrangements.
Pearly everlasting is a tall, herbaceous perennial wildflower with stems up to three feet tall. The leaves are long and slender with green surfaces and densely white-woolly undersides (matching the cottony stems). The flowers often have a slightly musky odor. Native Americans often utilized odoriferous plants for medicinal purposes and pearly everlasting was no exception. Common uses for this species included poultices for treatment of sores, boiling in tea or a steam bath for rheumatism, or smoked to treat colds. The plant was also among many native species used as a tobacco substitute. Indian tribes had many opportunities to use pearly everlasting, as the species occurs commonly in dry, stony, or clay-rich soils of mountain meadows, prairies, and fallow fields across most of North America except the southeastern United States.
The flowers of pearly everlasting are either entirely staminate (producing pollen) or functionally pistillate (mostly producing just seed, but with a few staminate flowers present). This adaptation promotes cross-pollination by insects (mostly butterflies and moths) and reduces the likelihood of self-fertilization.