Leonard and I often plan hikes around specific wildflowers or some other natural history topic. As often as not we do not find our “quest”, but there is always something interesting. Bull elephants head (Pedicularis groenlandica) was our objective on several walks until we finally found this interesting plant in the wet meadow section of Castle Crest Trail in Crater Lake National Monument (Oregon) in late June.
Bull elephants head, a native perennial, is found throughout most of Canada and from the Rocky Mountain States westward in the United States. Its habitat includes fens, wet meadows, seepage areas and the edges of mountain streams from mid to high elevations.
The stems of bull elephants head are unbranched and often clustered, hairless and may be reddish-purple. The finely divided, fern-like leaves are mostly basal or on the lower stems. The leaf divisions are sharply toothed. Going up the stem, the alternate leaves become progressively smaller.
The bull elephants head inflorescence is a terminal spike of purple-pink to reddish flowers. It does not take much imagination to see each flower as an elephant’s head. The five petals are strongly bilaterally symmetrical. The petals are fused into two lips. The upper lip is strongly hooded (the elephant’s head) and beaked (resembling the trunk). The lower lip is three-lobed with the two outer lobes looking like the elephant’s ears. The five sepals are fused, there are four stamens and a single superior ovary. The “trunk” curves beyond the lower lip. An albino (white) form of bull elephants head exists. The flowers exhibit a high degree of specialization for bumblebee pollination. The bees are capable of manipulating the petals to reach the nectar and pollen inside the hood.
Bull elephant head fruits are hairless, curved and flattened capsules containing numerous seeds.
The bull elephants head plant was traditionally used to treat stomach ulcers, rheumatism, and urinary problems. Modern herbalists utilize bull elephants head as a mild sedative and muscle relaxant. Care must be taken when ingesting bull elephants head preparations. A trace presence of a potentially toxic alkaloid combined with the sedative nature of bull elephants head may produce harmful effects. Also, bull elephants head has parasitic tendencies, so care must be taken to identify any possible toxic host plant to avoid adverse effects contributed by the host.
This member of the Figwort (Snapdragon) Family is also commonly called little red elephants, fernleaf and elephant head lousewort. According to folklore, cows that ate Pedicularis plants would become infected with lice – or alternately legend also says that eating Pedicularis would cure people and livestock of lice. The genus name comes from the Latin word meaning louse – “pediculus”. The species name, groenlandica, means Greenland. In 1795 the first P groenlandica plant was found in Greenland and became the species type plant. In the literature there is disagreement whether bull elephants head currently occurs in only one location in Greenland or whether it is more widespread.
There is another elephants head, the baby elephants head (P attollens) that differs from P groenlandica by the length of the “trunk”, among other characteristics. Baby elephants head as well as an albino bull elephants head will be goals of other hikes next spring.