Wire Lettuce – Stephanoneria

Wire Lettuce, the Stephanoneria pauciflora, also known as the Desert Straw and browplume wirelettuce, is a perennial herb which grows and flowers nearly year round in the Mojave Desert. These plants can grow more than three feet tall and three feet wide. They are slightly woody below. Mature plants develop many curving stems, some living, many dead, giving a basket-like appearance. Broken green stems exude milky sap like other members of the lettuce subfamily.
They are quite common on rocky slopes, washes and on disturbed sites throughout the desert. They sport lavender flowers which appear to have five or six petals. This is deceiving, however, as the Stephanoneria pauciflora is a composite flower, and each ‘petal’ is actually a distinct flower. The five notches at tip of each flower are actually five petals. Each of the composite’s flowers is equipped with two-parted stigma and stamens. The flower heads occur at intervals along the mostly naked stems.
Atop each seed is a plumose pappus that sheds easily.
There plants have no thorns. The leaves are small, linear leaves and scale-like, shedding after drought to leave the green, wiry stems to photosynthesize. The superabundity of dead and arching straw provides a sunscreen which protects the plant and allows it to survive, indeed flourish, during hot, dry periods.
In contrast to some similar species which tend to have less branched, taller and more vertical stems, the stems of stephanomeria pauciflora are thin, green, branched and grow at different angles, often forming a rounded, tangled mass, mixed with the dead brown stems from the previous year. The small leaves are mostly basal; those on the stems are reduced to small scales, and are well-separated so when not in bloom the plant is easy to miss. Stem leaves tend to be withered at flowering time. The stems contain milky sap. Stems and leaves are usually smooth and hairless.

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