Tofieldia pusilla (Small False Asphodel)

Plant Info
Also known as: Scottish Asphodel, Scotch False Asphodel, Scotch Featherling
Genus:Tofieldia
Family:Tofieldiaceae (Tofieldia)
Life cycle:perennial
Origin:native
Status:
  • State Endangered
Habitat:sun; moist to wet; bedrock pools, peat bogs, fens, alpine tundra
Bloom season:June - July
Plant height:3 to 8 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: none MW: none NCNE: FACW
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: 6-petals Cluster type: raceme Cluster type: spike

[photo of flowers] A spike-like raceme of short-stalked flowers at the top of the stem, the flowers often crowded together at the stem tip, sometimes separated or elongating in fruit. Flowers are less than ¼ inch across, with 6 greenish-white tepals (petals and similar sepals). In the center are 6 spreading, white stamens surrounding a green, 3-sectioned, bullet-shaped ovary with 3 spreading styles at the tip. All parts are hairless.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: basal Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are mostly basal, sword-shaped, ½ to 3 inches long, about 1/8 inch wide, toothless, hairless and stalkless, overlapping at the base on opposite sides (2-ranked) in a flat, fan-like arrangement.

[photo of stem leaf] 1 to 3 stem leaves, usually more scale-like, may be alternately arranged on the lower half of the stem, or absent altogether. Stems are erect, unbranched, and hairless.

Fruit: Fruit type: capsule/pod

[photo of developing fruit] After pollination the tepals fold up, enveloping the developing fruit: an oval to round, 3-sectioned capsule up to about 1/8 inch long, longer than the tepals, and the styles persisting at the tip. The capsule turns gray-green as it matures, drying to brown and becoming papery. Inside the capsule are tiny seeds.

Notes:

Small False Asphodel is a circumpolar species, found in northern latitudes of Europe, Asia and North America. It barely reaches into the US around Lake Superior, on the north shore in Minnesota and Michigan's Isle Royale, where its preferred habitat is in the sedge-dominated vegetation mats around bedrock pools, and is very rare in both states. In other parts of its range it's found in fens, peat bogs and moist tundra. According to the DNR, fewer than 10 locations have been found since it was first discovered near Two Harbors in 1891, and populations are small. It was listed as an Endangered Species in 1984. While the bedrock itself is hardy enough, the vegetation mats that support these rock pool microhabitats are quite fragile and threatened by development, pollution, vandalism, and trampling.

One population, on Artist Point in Grand Marais, was known to still exist in 2011, but we scoured the point several times since and never found it. Artist Point is a popular tourist destination and we suspect the Small False Asphodel population there may have succumbed to trampling, along with most other plants on the point. :-( It took years of painstaking search in all of the old, known locations as well as other areas of suitable habitat before we finally encountered a tiny population in Lake County in 2016. Now that we've seen it, we will leave it in peace. Hopefully it will survive.

Small False Asphodel is similar to the related Sticky False Asphodel (Triantha glutinosa), which is a taller plant with longer leaves, has stems covered with sticky glands, more loosely arranged flower clusters, and is present mostly in our northwest counties.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka and Peter M. Dziuk taken in Lake County.

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