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   The genus Heterotheca is complex and not completely understood.  In William Weber's words: "This group, centering around... Heterotheca villosa, exhibits an enormous range of variability.  Many species and varieties have been proposed for what seem to be nodes of stability within a mass of variable characters...."  In early editions of Colorado Flora: Western Slope, Weber listed four species of Heterotheca.  In the latest edition (4th edition published in 2012) he lists only the two shown below: H. pumila and H. villosa.  In addition, Weber recognizes three more species, H. canescens, H. foliosa, and H. latifolia on the Eastern slope.

  The Synthesis of the North American Flora and the Flora of North America recognize the following species of Heterotheca in the Four Corners area: H. fulcrata (uncommon in two counties), H. pumila, H. subaxillariis (rare in one county), H. villosa (with a number of subspecies), and H. zionensis.

   The two species of Heterotheca shown below spread easily and rapidly in hot dry exposed areas, H. pumila in subalpine settings and H. villosa from the foothills to the subalpine.  Both species form numerous, eye-catching symmetrical clusters five-to-twenty inches tall and several feet in diameter. An abundance of small, bright yellow flowers cover the plant from late spring through fall.  Light and dark green to olive and sage green leaves frequently have a strong, pleasant, spicy pungency.

    "Hetero" is Greek for "different" and "theca" for "case", referring to the differing seeds produced by the ray and disk flowersThis is an unusual characteristic, for many other Sunflowers produce identical seeds from both the outer ray flowers and the inner disk flowers.

    Heterotheca villosa was first collected by Thomas Nuttall "on the Missouri" and was named Amellus villosus by Frederick Pursh in 1814.  Nuttall renamed the plant Chrysopsis villosa in 1836 and Shinners moved this species to the Heterotheca genus in 1951.

    Heterotheca pumila was first collected by Edward Greene in Colorado in 1889 and was named Chrysopsis pumila by Greene in 1894.  It was placed in the Heterotheca genus by Semple in 1987.

    These two species have endured dozens of other name changes; fortunately they have retained their eye-arresting beauty and their pungent-sweet aroma no matter what they have been called. 

Heterotheca pumila
Heterotheca pumila

Heterotheca pumila.  Synonym: Chrysopsis pumila. (Dwarf Golden Aster)
Asteraceae (Sunflower Family)

Subalpine, alpine. Scree. Late spring, summer, fall.
Sneffels Highline Trail, August 4, 2004.

As the photograph above indicates, Heterotheca pumila likes rocky, sunny areas in the alpine and subalpine zones. It spreads easily and can line trails and cover steep mountainsides.  The lower leaves of H. pumila wither early and remain on the plant into the next season.  Flower heads are usually one per stem, numerous on each plant, and just above the pleasantly aromatic leaves.  This can be a very abundant plant near and above tree-line.

Plants grow to over a foot tall and flower heads are typically a bit over an inch in diameter, up to twice as large as those of H. villosa.

"Pumila" is Latin for "dwarf" but this Heterotheca commonly has larger leaves and flowers than Heterotheca villosa (below).

Heterotheca pumila

Heterotheca pumila.  Synonym: Chrysopsis pumila. (Dwarf Golden Aster)
Asteraceae (Sunflower Family)

Subalpine, alpine. Scree. Late spring, summer, fall.
Sneffels Highline Trail, August 4, 2004.

Heterotheca pumila

Heterotheca pumila.  Synonym: Chrysopsis pumila. (Dwarf Golden Aster)
Asteraceae (Sunflower Family)

Subalpine, alpine. Scree. Late spring, summer, fall.
Calico Trail, August 19, 2009.

Phyllaries are narrow, green (sometimes with red ("anthocyanic") tinges), and in several overlapping rows.  Leaves are quite hairy.

 

Heterotheca villosa

Heterotheca villosa.  Synonym: Chrysopsis villosa.   (Hairy Golden Aster)
Asteraceae (Sunflower Family)

Semi-desert, foothills, montane. Openings, disturbed areas. Late spring, summer, fall.
Near Yellow Jacket Canyon, August 5, 2009.

Heterotheca villosa is abundant not only in the foothills and mountains, but also in vacant lots, farmyards, and along roadsides.  It needs little water, often blooms for three or four months, seeds itself readily (and spreads from roots), and has a marvelous spicy-sharp sage aroma.  The plant pictured is about seven inches tall and flowerheads are about a half inch in diameter.

"Villosa" is Latin for "hairy".

Heterotheca villosa

Heterotheca villosa.  Synonym: Chrysopsis villosa. (Hairy Golden Aster)
Asteraceae (Sunflower Family)

Semi-desert, foothills, montane. Openings, disturbed areas. Late spring, summer, fall.
Near Yellow Jacket Canyon, May 31, 2004.

Heterotheca villosa

Heterotheca villosa.  Synonym: Chrysopsis villosa. (Hairy Golden Aster)
Asteraceae (Sunflower Family)

Semi-desert, foothills, montane. Openings, disturbed areas. Late spring, summer, fall.
Near Yellow Jacket Canyon, May 31, 2004.

Leaf color variations, even in plants growing side by side, are very noticeable.

Range map © John Kartesz,
Floristic Synthesis of North America

State Color Key

Species present in state and native
Species present in state and exotic
Species not present in state

County Color Key

Species present and not rare
Species present and rare
Species extirpated (historic)
Species extinct
Species noxious
Species exotic and present
Native species, but adventive in state
Eradicated
Questionable presence

Range map for Heterotheca pumila  

Range map for Heterotheca villosa