Native prairie plants have been around for centuries. Their toughness is enticing gardeners to add their low-maintenance beauty to the landscape. The compass plant stands tall above most, and also has an interesting history.
Leonard Perry is a retired extension horticulturist at the University of Vermont. He says Native Americans used compass plant roots for tea and dried the sap for chewing gum. It got its name from the early settlers who used it as a rudimentary GPS.
"The name, which comes about from the leaves, they orient so the tips are north and south, so that leaves the blades facing east and west. The whole purpose of that is to reduce the water loss so less sun impacts the leaf surface," explains Perry. "Since the leaves are generally north and south, that’s what the settlers would use even at nighttime to help them find direction if they got lost in these prairies."
The compass plant is found growing naturally in prairies, fields, and roadsides. It’s also becoming popular in the landscape because it doesn’t mind the extremes of drought or soggy feet. And, many gardeners find it’s quite the showy addition.
"It’s kind of like a sunflower, the flower can get up to 5” across, often a little bit less. It can get up to 10-feet tall, and the taproot can get up to 15-feet deep which is amazing to think how tall the plant is, and the taproot even deeper," he says. "Which means it can really mine for water deep in the soil so that really helps it not only with stability, but also to withstand drought conditions."
The compass plant is a slow grower. But once you find a spot for it, leave it there because it doesn’t like to be dug up or divided. You could almost consider it a garden heirloom for generations to come. Perry says compass plants can live up to 100 years.