An icon of the prairie. The giant of the prairie. Reaching upwards of eight feet, compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) definitely stands out among its peers in the prairie. Compass plant not only stands tall over its peers, it can outlive them too, as individual plants have been known to live upwards of 100 years.
Compass plant gets its name because of the leaves' tendency to orient themselves along a north-south axis. The leaves do this to maximize water use and to increase the carbon dioxide gain. The flowers bloom from early July to early August.
The bitter, resinous sap could be made into a chewing gum. The pounded root of compass plant is used by the Pawnees to make a tea for “general debility”. This tea is also used by the Santee Dakotas to rid horses of worms and by the Omaha and Ponca as a horse tonic
Birds and small mammals eat the seeds. In grasslands devoid of woody species, the compass plant provides a sturdy perch for prairie songbirds. Eastern kingbirds use the compass plant as a perch to locate and capture grassland insects