Plant of the Week
Mountain Kittentails (Synthyris missurica)
By Cheryl Beyer
There are nine recognized species of kittentails (genus Synthyris) in North America with most species being montane or alpine and confined to the western states. Primarily a northern group, with the exception of Charleston Mountain kittentails (Synthyris ranunculina) near Las Vegas, Nevada, they occur in areas of extensive mountain ranges and isolated mountains. Individual populations have usually been separated for long periods of time, which has allowed them time to evolve as separate entities.
Mountain kittentails, Synthyris missurica, has the widest range distribution of any Synthyris species. It slips into extreme northeastern California from Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. Showing its preference for more northern climes, in California it occurs primarily on cool north-facing slopes above 6,500 feet only in the relatively remote Warner Mountains of Modoc and Lassen Counties. At those high elevations, it is one of the first plants to flower in the spring, usually in early May, when snow is still on the ground. Sometimes the snow keeps access roads closed or covers sections of trails. Consequently, few people in California are familiar with it.
The common name of “kittentails” for this showy, deep blue wildflower comes from the elongated raceme that, with ample imagination, could resemble the tail of a kitten. The two stamens that protrude beyond the petals give the entire inflorescence a furry ambiance. The scientific genus name comes from “syn,” together, and “thyris,” little door or valve, in reference to the capsules of the plant in fruit.
Mountain kittentails is a perennial growing from rhizomes and produces mostly basal, long-petiolate, leathery leaves with cordate bases, although several small, reduced leaves may be found below the flowering stalk. The leaf margins are shallowly to deeply toothed, with individual teeth often possessing even smaller teeth. The leaf blades are palmately veined and about as long as wide.
Lewis and Clark gathered the first collection on June 26, 1806, from the headwaters of Hungry Creek, a tributary of the Lochsa (“Kooskooske”) River in Idaho. Originally classified under the genus, Veronica, mountain kittentails was not transferred to the genus Synthyris until 1933.
You can view photos of mountain kittentails on the web at The Lewis and Clark Herbarium, Images of the Plants Collected by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, 1804-1806.