Hare-footed locoweed

A wild and crazy rar­ity re­sid­ing in a small cor­ner of Alberta, Oxytropis lago­pus is a some­what toxic mem­ber of the pea fam­ily

Canadian Wildlife - - OUTDOORS - —MEL WAL­WYN

If you are not a rancher, then there’s a lot to love about this crazy plant, this “locoweed.” For some, it is its del­i­cate colour­ful flow­ers. For oth­ers, it is its silken and sil­very herbage. Oth­ers will point to its rar­ity. We like it for its name, hare-footed locoweed, though we also like the al­ter­na­tive names: hare’s-foot point-vetch and rab­bit-foot crazy­weed.

Its full and proper name is Oxytropis lago­pus. The first part is de­rived from the Greek words oxus, mean­ing sharp, and tropis, for “keel,” and refers to the sharp tip of the bot­tom con­joined petals (or keel) of the flower. Lago­pus is de­rived from the an­cient Greek word la­gos, mean­ing “hare,” plus pous for “foot” — though there is noth­ing par­tic­u­larly about it that re­sem­bles a hare’s foot. (Oddly, the same word is also the generic name for the ptarmi­gan, whose foot, ad­mit­tedly, is vaguely lap­ine.)

As to where loco, Span­ish for “crazy,” comes from, some Oxytropis species syn­the­size swain­so­nine, a chem­i­cal

com­pound that, as ranch­ers and va­que­ros ev­ery­where know, in large and sus­tained quan­ti­ties causes in­tox­i­ca­tion in cat­tle, horses and sheep; they start act­ing loco. The med­i­cal con­di­tion is ac­tu­ally known as lo­co­ism (also locoweed disease, or pea struck in Aus­tralia); symp­toms in­clude ag­gres­sion, hy­per­ac­tiv­ity, difficulty walk­ing, droop­ing head and loss of co­or­di­na­tion.

A mem­ber of the pea fam­ily, the hare-footed locoweed is a small tufted plant stand­ing up to 13 cm tall with 5 to 15 leaves topped by 15-mm pur­ple-blue flow­ers with five petals (they bloom mid-april to Au­gust). The seed pods mea­sure up to 15 mm long and ex­pand at ma­tu­rity. The dis­tinc­tive keels noted above dif­fer­en­ti­ate this species from the sim­i­lar-look­ing though more com­mon and be­nign milk vetch, as do the basally at­tached silky hairs.

In Canada, the hare-footed locoweed is found in south­west­ern Alberta near the Mon­tana border, in a 2,700-sq.-km grass­land and plateau carved with ravines and ridges by the Milk River (un­usual for Canada, it is part of the Mis­sis­sippi River’s mas­sive drainage basin). Called the Milk River Ridge, the sen­si­tive area is home to sev­eral en­dan­gered species of birds, fish, am­phib­ians and plants and is an im­por­tant habi­tat for deer, pronghorn and many birds of prey. Locoweed grows in strips along up­per slopes or plateau rims of the area’s steep ridges, in well-drained sandy or gravel soils.

Con­fined in Canada to this small area, Oxytropis lago­pus is listed as “of spe­cial con­cern” un­der the fed­eral Species at Risk Act. Gravel quar­ry­ing and other de­vel­op­ment poses the great­est threat to its habi­tat. A peren­nial that re­pro­duces through pol­li­na­tion, the species re­lies on bum­ble­bees. With the dra­matic de­cline in the North Amer­i­can bum­ble­bee pop­u­la­tion, the fu­ture of the species is in doubt.

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