Thursday, September 1, 2022

Tall elephantsfoot, an easy-to-grow Florida wildflower

A Great Purple Hairstreak sipping nectar from tall
elephantsfoot flowers. The larval host for this beautiful
butterfly is mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum).

Tall elephantsfoot (Elephantopus elatus) is a perennial Florida native wildflower with leathery leaves that form a rosette around its central growing point at ground level (basal leaves) and it's this leaf arrangement that inspired both its common name and genus name, elephantsfoot and Elephantopus, because they form a dense circle shaped like an elephant's footprint. The plant produces one or more tall, hairy flowering stalks with hardly any leaves. 

It's a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae), but it's unlike many of the family members that have flower heads composed of both disk and ray florets like a sunflower (with the ray florets looking and acting like petals and the smaller disk florets arrayed in the center). The flower head for this species has only disk florets that are subtended by three hairy bracts, which define the shape of the flower head as a triangular. The florets are light lavender to whitish and last only a day. They don't bloom until late morning just when the pollinators are first becoming active. So if you're out early in the morning, all you'll see are the old flowers from the day before.

The flower head structure is defined by
the three bracts, which form a triangle.
Range map for tall elephantsfoot in Florida
from The Atlas of Florida Plants.

Tall elephantsfoot at the edge of a
wildflower meadow.

In the landscape

Tall elephantsfoot is native to the southeastern states from South Carolina to Louisiana including most of Florida. It self seeds and may volunteer in wildflower meadows, pollinator gardens, and even in partially shaded areas of non-poisoned freedom lawns. I took all the photos for this article in my yard where this delightful wildflower has planted itself. 

It's fairly tolerant of transplanting and I have moved it frequently from the lawn to edges of wilder areas where I want something low-growing to transition from the mowed areas to the understory shrub area. While the flower stalks can be fairly tall up to more than two feet, the flowers are small and not showy from a distance, so in they serve well as a low border plant. In addition, they tolerate mowing, so being planted at the edges of the mowed areas works well. 

Tall elephantsfoot holds its own
in our freedom lawn.
If the lawn is not mowed often, these
plants put out short flower stems.

My guess is that this pollinator is a Feather-Legged
Scoliid Wasp (Dielis plumipes)
When growing in the lawn, it generally starts in a sparse area and then spreads from there crowding out both the St. Augustine grass and the other volunteers. We don't mow the lawn very often, so between mowings, the lawn elephantsfoots send up flowering stalks that end up being about six inches tall.


Tall elephantsfoot attracts both a high volume and wide variety of pollinators from bees and wasps to butterflies and lovebugs. So this self-seeding, easy-to-grow wildflower deserves to be part of your pollinator garden.

From NY Times article showing that this
unassuming little plant can push other plants 

In the news

Tall elephantsfoot was featured in an article in the New York Times that covered research done at University of Florida showing that the leaves of this plant actually apply pressure to nearby plants. 

"This Pushy Plant Is the First Proved to Shove Its Neighbor

"This behavior could help study a longstanding mystery of how so many plants share small amounts of space. 

This research was done by Camille Sicangco, an undergraduate student, and Dr. Francis “Jack” Putz, a botany professor at the University of Florida. Ms. Sicangco worked with engineering professors at the university to design and 3-D-print a soil-mounted cantilever system that growing leaves could push against. After just 24 hours, the leaves had pushed the device so it was no longer vertical. Over a number of trials, they measured an average pushing force of around .02 Newtons — roughly the force needed to lift a dime. Putz believes that the pushing force comes from hydraulic pressure generated inside plant cells.

This link I've shared here is a "gift" article and provides you with access to read it without having to subscribe to the Times:

Add this Florida native to your landscape

So whether you're studying the physics of the plants' leaves or just enjoying the parade of pollinators, I hope you have some tall elephantsfoot in your yard duking it out with the other wildflowers. For more information and for a link to native nurseries that have this lovely, but tough, wildflower in stock, go to its plant profile on the Florida Native Plant Socety's website.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt


  1. Thanks for the article! I have Tall Elephantsfoot growing everywhere on our new property and I would like to relocate some. Good to know they tolerate being transplanted. Other native plants I've tried transplanting usually don't survive the move so I stopped trying to relocate them.