Chaptalia – Envoy from the South

Some plants don’t call attention to themselves, which is the case for Chaptalia tomentosa, colloquially called the Wooly Sunbonnet or the Pineland Daisy.  To locate plants in the field, your eyes have to trail along the ground to catch the ghostlike coating of hair that masks the sheen of dark green foliage.

When washed off, dark green leaves remain, rimmed with a flash of light grey outlining.

The elliptic oblanceolate leaves form a soft, low rosette of leaves defining the gestalt of this daisy with the look-of-a-penguicula. I call on Penguicula because this plant is a denizen of wet areas, where it’s density and presence remind me of Penguicula dispersal patterns, sometimes in close colonies, other times scattered in solitude, but always nestled against the ground, beneath whatever grasses and herbs might provide cover. 

It’s a nice thing for naturalists that the evergreen vegetative stages can be so easily recognized, since the Chaptalia flowering period is fairly short, mostly in the “winter” months, from November through February, though you’ll catch a stray out-of-season inflorescence.  The white-flocked, dark, lustrous green adaxial leaf surface is somehow distinct from the thousands of other leaves in the wet Apalachicola forests.  Leaves, with their deep green shine, even remain identifiable once adaxial hairs have sloughed off.

And the densely pubescent abaxial surface, though not unique, reveals the identity in the event there were any question regarding first glance at the top of the leaves 

The plant is perennial and modestly clumping, but not in a congested way.  The ISB Plant Atlas provides numerous photographs of herbarium specimens (which are crucial documents), but the necessary process of spreading and pressing the plant for drying and mounting obliterates the splayed-out habit so characteristic of living specimens.  Assuming pressed specimens reflect the look of living plants is like imagining that pin-mounted butterflies represent all the life those creatures ever had.

Pinned Butterlies at the Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville

When Chaptalia does flower, it’s still a modest event, the size and attitude of Cowslip (Primula veris), if you happen to know that springtime herb.  Since this is a daisy, however, I guess a better comparison would be with Dandelion, which is, in contrast, quite a show-off, beaming back at the sun like a tiny reflection.  Chaptalia is demure, persisting as a low rosette, about 6-8 inches across, that sends up one to several flowering stems of 6 to as much as 15 inches in height. The gray pubescence of lower leaf surfaces covers flowering stems, each topped by a head that, when closed, is a bit over an inch long.  Even when open, it’s a cautious event, with rays tentatively widely spread.

The flowering heads are, however, where critical distinctions lie, at least this is what you need to appreciate to arrive at determination through a dichotomous key.  Florets in the head are “trimorphic”, with an outer ring or two of ray flowers, inside which you find a ring of tubular disk flowers, arriving at the center of the head where the disk flowers are “bilabiate” (petal lobes forming two lips).  The big question we hear in social media today is “how’d that work out for you?”  That interrogative fairly well summarizes my personal observations regarding the inner workings of a Chaptalia capitulum.  You might be hard pressed to make this determination with a handlens. But you can check out the photo below.

The Back Story
The Apalachicola flora includes only Chaptalia tomentosa, one of several dozen species in the genus.  It’s an outlier, but if the genus is ever broken up (and there have been several attempts), C. tomentosa will remain, because this represents the type.  So how did that happen?  How is it that a reasonably large genus of tropical herbs came to be based on a temperate zone plant of Eastern North America (reminding us of a similar situation with Chamaecrista)?
To ponder the intrigue of Chaptalia, one has to consider the time of scientific turbulence, tragedy, and triumph that was France, immediately before, during, and after the French Revolution.  Amidst the tumult of this era, this curiously humble plant, native to the Southeastern Lower Coastal Plain pinewoods, held court in a French book where it was illustrated by the Pierre-Joseph Redouté ( the ”Raphaël des fleurs”), was named for an important French chemist, and served as the earliest example of a genus sporting a host of tropical species.

This story begins with Jacques-Martin Cels, and we are fortunate the tale has been well-presented in a splendid 2017 article by Calimander, et al.  Cels was among the many whose lives were upended by the Revolution, but in this case, he was able to rebound as “an illustrious French horticulturist” who collected and traded in rare plants.  His connections with plant collectors — Jean-Guillaume Bruguière, Guillaume-Antoine Olivier, Pierre Marie-Auguste Broussonet, and André Michaux — ensured a steady supply of exotic seed.  A small plant, cultivated in his Orangerie from seed collected in the “great Carolina forests” around “Charles-Town”, was #61 among 100 plants described and illustrated in a series of luxurious fascicles written and published in 1800 by Étienne Pierre Ventenat, his exquisite Description des plantes nouvelles et peu connues : cultivées dans le jardin de J.M. Cels : avec figures.  

For his naming of Chaptalia, Ventenat explains the eponym celebrates Jean-Antoine Chaptal (whom, in post-Revolutionary France, he refers to as Citizen). Ventenat mentions Chaptal’s work on Wine, but also references the enormity of Chaptal’s contributions to French economic development, mostly based on applied chemistry. I remember Chaptal as a collaborator of Lavoisier, and as the scientist who introduced the term “nitrogen” to our chemical vocabulary, all capped by surviving his arrest and near-execution during the Revolution – saved because he knew important stuff that could support industry.

Ventanat’s description of Chaptalia tomentosa notes this is the same plant Walter (1788) had listed as a Linnaean species, tentatively Perdicium semiflosculare? (the question mark being Walter’s). a usage that’s considered illegitimate. 

Michaux, whose important American Flora was published in 1803 might have adopted Ventenat’s treatment. But the always restless André Michaux died of fever in Madagascar in October 1802, having left an 1800 expedition to Australia. Those new expeditions had prevented his completing the long-awaited Flora Boreali-Americana, a project that had already survived Michaux’s disastrous 1796 shipwreck, from which he rescued most of his North American specimens. Thus, as Redouté was illustrating and Ventenat was publishing Cels’s plant, most likely grown from seed Michaux had sent to France, Michaux himself was wrapped up in wanderlust, leaving his studies and manuscript, which were completed by his son François André Michaux for the 1803 publication. No surprise the Michaux Flora missed the boat, therefore, seemingly uninformed by Ventenat’s work, but citing the earlier work of Walter while classifying our plant in another Linnaean genus under the name Tussilago semiflosculareTussilago remains an “accepted” genus, but is considered monotypic, circumscribing only the single species T. farfara, a Eurasian native widespread in large areas of North America.  Today, Tussilago is considered an odd segregate in the Senecio tribe, very different from how botanists view Chaptalia.

In the contemporary world of cladistic analysis and molecular information (search, the bilabiate floral form described for Chaptalia is considered somewhat primitive in the Asteraceae, setting if off as relative to South African and South Asian Gerberas and South America’s vining Mustisias.  That makes North America’s few Chaptalias, especially Chaptalia tomentosa, the most northerly pioneers from a Southern Hemisphere base.

Here, from text by Katinas et al (2009), we learn: “Mutisieae include the beautiful mutisias and gerberas. A few taxa are widely distributed but the majority occur in South America. The members of Mutisieae are particularly interesting because of their basal placement in the family along with the subfamily Barnadesioideae. One of the major challenges that synantherologists have faced has been finding an accurate classification of Mutisieae since, despite the use of several types of data such as morphology, palynology, and different molecular markers, there is not a general agreement on where all of the genera should be placed.”

Many thanks to Ruby Roberts (Technical Services) and Kelly Russell (Forest Supervisor) of the National Forest Service for assistance with permission to study and document plants in Apalachicola National Forest.

Video from Jan 2023… Note I misspoke in stating that Michaux is the author… As I explain above, Ventenat authored this genus and species

Ventenat, Étienne Pierre, 1800, Description des plantes nouvelles et peu connues : cultivées dans le jardin de J.M. Cels : avec figures  A Paris, De l’imprimerie de Crapelet, an 8, [i.e. 1799 or 1800] DOI Holding Institution  Smithsonian Libraries, É. P. (Étienne Pierre), 1757-1808Cels, Jacques-Martin, 1743-1806Redouté, Henri Joseph, 1766-1852
Walter, Thomas, 1788.  Flora caroliniana : secundum systema vegetabilium perillustris Linnaei digesta; characteres essentiales naturalesve et differentias veras exhibens; cum emendationibus numerosis: descriptionum antea evulgatarum: adumbratione stirpium plus mille continens: necnon, Generibus Novis Non Pauci, speciells plurimis novis ornata….Fraser, J. Wenman, Joseph 1790, Londini, Sumptibus J. Fraser Prostant venales apud J. Wenman, in Vico vulgo dicto Fleet-street, 1788  DOI  Holding Institution  Missouri Botanical Garden, Peter H. Raven Librarym
Michaux, André, 1803.    Flora boreali-americana, sistens caracteres plantarum quas in America septentrionali collegit et detexit Andreas Michaux – Parisiis et Argentorati, apud fratres Levrault, anno XI—1803  Michaux, André, 1746-1802  DOI  Volume 1:  Holding Institution Missouri Botanical Garden  Volume2: DOI
Callmander, Martin W., Olivier D. Durbin, Hans-Walter Lack, Patrick Bungener, Pascal Martin & Laurent Gautier, 2017.  Etienne-Pierre Ventenat (1757-1808) and  the gardens of Cels and Empress Joséphine,  Candollea 72(1):87-132   DOI: 10.15553/c2017v721a8
Katinas, Liliana, Gisela Sancho, María Cristina Tellería and Jorge V. Crisci, 2009.  Mutisieae sensu stricto (Mutisioideae sensu stricto), Chapter 14 in Funke, V. A., A. Susanna, T. Steussy, and R. J. Bayer (editors),    Systematics, Evolution, and Biogeography of Compositae.

Reveal, James L., 2004. ‘No Man is an Island: The Life and Times of André Michaux’, Castanea, Occ Papers 2

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