Yellow Hawkweed or King Devil

Hieracium caespitosum (H. pratense)

King Devil and a visiting moth
King Devil and a visiting moth

I’ve been spotting a new wildflower around town this week, and I even saw it a couple of days ago on top of Salt Pond Mountain, near Mountain Lake. It is hard to miss this plant because the flower stalks are tall and straight and they are topped with sunny yellow flowers that are very noticeable, even from a distance.

King Devil
King Devil: hairy stem and buds

The flowers look like dandelions, only smaller (they are about a half-inch across in diameter). And instead of one flower per stem, these flowers occur in a tight cluster of several flowers at the top of a tall, unbranched stem. Before the flowers open, the buds are surrounded by bracts that are conspicuously hairy.

King Devil
King Devil is in the Family Asteraceae (composites)

From looking at the photos, you can easily guess that this plant is a composite, but notice the complete lack of disk flowers in the center of this composite…  weird, right? All the yellow “petals” that you see are actually ray flowers, and each ray has 5 little teeth on the end that give it a scalloped look. So cute!  See the gallery below for a closer look :). (Just for contrast, compare this yellow hawkweed  to Tansy, which has all disk flowers and no ray flowers!)

Leaves and flower cluster of King Devil
Leaves and flower cluster of King Devil

Members of the Hieracium species are commonly called “hawkweeds”, but this particular plant is also known as King Devil. The leaves are much less conspicuous than the flowers.  A small number of basal leaves can be found down at ground-level. They are long and skinny (up to 8 inches long) with smooth margins, and they are otherwise unremarkable except they are  covered by coarse hairs on both sides. The stem on each plant is also covered with bristly hair.

There are native species of hawkweed in the U.S. as well as European introductions. Many of these occur in the same areas, at the same time, so positive identification can be challenging.  To make matters worse, there are numerous common names for the same plant. Besides King Devil, other common names include yellow hawkweed, meadow hawkweed, devil’s paintbrush, and yellow devil. Phew! Just pick one!

Legend had it that hawks ate this plant plant in order to improve their eyesight. I guess it followed then that eating the plant could help people “see like a hawk” too.  As for the “devil” in the name King Devil, it is probably a farmer’s description of the plant’s weedy invasiveness.  All the hawkweeds “spread like the devil” and will quickly out-compete more desirable natives!

Look for King Devil blooming now (June through August) in lawns and pastures, and along roadsides throughout the region.  Also note a similar species blooming around the same time of year: Smooth Hawksbeard.

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