This charming little plant, rarely growing more than a foot tall, goes by many different common names including prairie starflower, woodland star and slender fringe cup. Since we first called Lithophragma bulbifera a prairie starflower, that is the name Leonard and I continue to use.
Another one of the first wildflowers to bloom in the spring, prairie starflowers can be found from the dry sagebrush to meadows and grassy hillsides as well as in open forests and rocky ridges throughout all of the western states. The prairie starflowers in these pictures reside in the lanes between our pastures (Modoc County CA).
A native perennial that spreads from rhizomes, the prairie starflower has small flowers in an open raceme at the tip of the red stem. These delicate flowers range from white to pink or even purplish with petals that are deeply divided or lobed into several narrow segments. The palmately lobed and divided leaves are hairy and deeply divided. Most of the leaves are basal and have long stems. The upper leaves are nearly stalkless. Small reddish bulbs (or bulblets) about the size of a rice grain form among the fibrous roots. These red bulblets also are produced in the axes of the upper stem leaves.
These bulbs are reported to contain toxins which can poison livestock, particularly when eaten in the spring. The entire plant is often pulled out of the soft, wet soil in the spring, whereas in the dryer seasons the bulbs are not as easily eaten while grazing. The bulbs are so tiny that it would take many to cause harm. Although toxic to livestock, rodents can eat prairie starflower bulblets without harm.
One must look close to see the small, beautiful prairie starflower.