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U.S. Forest Service

Plant of the Week

Map of the United States showing states. States are colored green where the species may be found. Dicentra uniflora range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Steer's head (Dicentra uniflora) Steer's head. Photo public domain.

Steer's Head (Dicentra uniflora)

By Charmaine Delmatier, 2016

Steer's head (Dicentra uniflora) is a small perennial herb native to western North America, including British Columbia, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. You will find it early in the season as the snow recedes on rocky slopes and hillsides in gravelly soils. Elevations are usually between 4,900 feet and rarely up to 10,000 feet. However, take extra care if you want to find them, look first for the darker dissected spoon shaped green leaves. Once you have spotted these leafy herbaceous forbs, then adjust your search and gaze for a minute; and to your surprise, you will see smaller light pink flowers peering through the green foliage resembling a steer’s head. It is always a treat to find these early bloomers; they are spring’s gift for the eager hiker after a long winter.

Dicentra is Greek for "double spurred", referring to the two recurved outer petals that form the steer’s horns, and uniflora is Latin for “one” and “flower.”

The best way to spot them is to walk along a forest’s edge where the snow has recently receded, but walk slow if you want to find this small prostrate herb, it often hides its single distinct flower subtended on a delicate pedicel no taller than 1/3 of an inch! The flowers are small and usually nodding, barely exceeding the darker green foliage. The leaves have 3 to 4 spoon shaped leaflets and are loosely pubescent near the base. The flower shape lives up to its namesake with reflexed outer petals and inner petals narrowing into a triangular head-like shape. Petal color ranges from pink to white to brownish with the inner petal margins tinged with purple.

According to Kingsley R. Stern in Flora of North America, the Fumariaceae family consists of 19 genera and 450 species in North America and Eurasia. Often referred as the Fumitory family, steer’s head stands alone on the forest floor; that is, of course, after you have found them. A related species in the same genera is bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), but it is more robust, standing much taller, has more than one flower per stem, and the flowers are shaped like hearts. Another related species is Dicentra pauciflora, alsowith recurved outside petals, but these start their recurve farther down the flowering head, hence the common name “short-horn steer’s head”. Short-horned steer’s head is restricted to California and Oregon, and often flowers later into the summer.

Some of the historical and current-day medicinal remedies in the fumitory family are known to help with skin disorders such as acne and eczema. Several French and German physicians prefer using members of the fumitory family as a blood purifier, particularly for the liver.

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