By Jim Lakin, M.D., Master Gardener
The genus Antennaria boasts dozens of species native to the temperate regions of the Northern hemisphere. Here in the Northern Midwest, we have two commonly found species: Antennaria neglecta or Lesser Pussytoes and Antennaria plantaginifolia or Plantain-Leafed Pussytoes. Together these two fellows provide great ground covers for various environments where most other plants fear to tread.
The Pussytoes derive their name from the silky white flowers which form in tight clusters that resemble a cat’s toe. The plants are dioecious (either male or female). Male plants’ flowers disintegrate rapidly but the female plants’ blooms are longer lived being supplemented by a tuft of awned fruits that look frothy when ripe.
Lesser or Field Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) are found in dry prairies, savannas and open woodlands in difficult, often eroded areas where little else will grow. Thus, they can compete in spite of their small stature. Their basal leaves are only some 3 inches tall and the flower spikes grow to no more than 8 inches. They do well in dry, hot areas with full sun. They are ideal for so-called “hell strips” between urban sidewalks and streets. They spread by rhizomes into masses several feet in width. If you want to increase your plantings, they are easily propagated by division.
In contrast, Plantain-Leaved Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) grows better with more shade than does Lesser Pussytoes. It does just fine in a shady moist area. As a matter of fact, its leaves may burn if the plant is in a location that is too sunny, too dry or too hot. Like Lesser Pussytoes, it will densely cover ground prone to erosion. Its leaves are wider with three noticeable veins. It does bear a resemblance to plantain, a not so popular addition to many suburban lawns. Plantain-Leaved Pussytoes also spread by rhizomes and can be propagated by division or grown from seed.
So, if you are looking for a tough, resilient ground cover for those difficult areas, consider one of the Antennaria.