Besseya bullii - (Eat.) Rydb.
Kitten Tails
Other English Common Names: Bull's Coral-drops
Other Common Names: Bull's coraldrops
Synonym(s): Synthyris bullii (Eaton) A. Heller ;Wulfenia bullii (Eat.) Barnh.
Taxonomic Status: Accepted
Related ITIS Name(s): Besseya bullii (Eat.) Rydb. (TSN 33497)
Unique Identifier: ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.153338
Element Code: PDSCR09030
Informal Taxonomy: Plants, Vascular - Flowering Plants - Figwort Family
Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus
Plantae Anthophyta Dicotyledoneae Scrophulariales Scrophulariaceae Besseya
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Concept Reference
Concept Reference: Kartesz, J.T. 1994. A synonymized checklist of the vascular flora of the United States, Canada, and Greenland. 2nd edition. 2 vols. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
Concept Reference Code: B94KAR01HQUS
Name Used in Concept Reference: Besseya bullii
Taxonomic Comments: Recent revision of the Flora of North America has renamed this taxon Synthyris bullii.
Conservation Status

NatureServe Status

Global Status: G3
Global Status Last Reviewed: 14Apr2014
Global Status Last Changed: 24Jun1988
Ranking Methodology Used: Ranked by calculator
Rounded Global Status: G3 - Vulnerable
Reasons: Although large populations are found in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois this species is signficantly threatened by lack of management as well as habitat loss from development. While prairie management has increased over the last 20 years, management of savannas and oak woodlands has lagged. These habitats are burned less frequently and have become overgrown, resulting in declines. Specifically, declines in B. bullii have been observed recently in Minnesota and Illinois. That being said, biologists in Wisconsin have noted anecdotally that this species is relatively tolerant of some anthropogenic disturbances such as mowing, trampling and trail building (pers. comm. T. Meyer and K. Kearn). Finally, lack of regular monitoring makes estimating short term trends uncertain (D. Anderson pers comm). Occurrences in Wisconsin and Minnesota that previously were ranked as having good viability have not been observed recently.
Nation: United States
National Status: N3

U.S. & Canada State/Province Status
Due to latency between updates made in state, provincial or other NatureServe Network databases and when they appear on NatureServe Explorer, for state or provincial information you may wish to contact the data steward in your jurisdiction to obtain the most current data. Please refer to our Distribution Data Sources to find contact information for your jurisdiction.
United States Illinois (S3), Indiana (S1), Iowa (S3), Michigan (S1), Minnesota (S2), Ohio (SH), Wisconsin (S3)

Other Statuses

NatureServe Global Conservation Status Factors

Range Extent Comments: Upper midwest; Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. Presumed extirpated from Ohio.

Area of Occupancy: 126-500 4-km2 grid cells
Area of Occupancy Comments: Estimated to be 225, 4 sq km grid cells.

Number of Occurrences: 81 - 300
Number of Occurrences Comments: Approximately 245 EOs rangewide.

Population Size Comments: The number of genets is unknown for this clonal plant; the ratio of ramets to genets is unknown, but rhizomes are short so the number of ramets probably isnt too much larger than the number of genets. Combined ~500 in MI and IN, ~5000 in IL, ~15k in WI, ~10k in IL, ~10k in MN, ~1500 in IA.

Number of Occurrences with Good Viability/Integrity: Many (41-125)
Viability/Integrity Comments: 24 in WI, 1-2 in IN, ~25 in MN, 0 in MI, 4-12 in IA. EOs in IL are not ranked (i.e., all extant EOs are ranked E), but there appear to be 5-10 large populations.

Overall Threat Impact: Medium
Overall Threat Impact Comments: The greatest threat to this species is habitat loss due to development, invasive species and forest succession. Although many populations in Wisconsin are on properties with active habitat management, others in Minnesota and Illinois have become overgrown and populations have declined subsequently. Few populations in IA are actively managed (M. Leoscke pers comm). Development also continues to be an issue, particularly around the Twin Cities where a number of Minnesota populations are located, and in Illinois where a number of occurrences have been lost to "lawn maintenance" and golf course development. Other threats include gravel mining and the subsequent erosion of the glacial deposit.

Short-term Trend: Decline of 50-70%
Short-term Trend Comments: Decline of 10-30% in MI, decline of 30-70% in MN, unknown in IA and IN, 30-50% in IL, relatively stable in WI.

Long-term Trend: Decline of 80-90%
Long-term Trend Comments: Based on habitat loss alone the long-term decline estimated to be is very high, especially in MN, IL and IA. Occurrences in OH are presumed extirpated.

Other NatureServe Conservation Status Information

Global Range: Upper midwest; Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. Presumed extirpated from Ohio.

U.S. States and Canadian Provinces

Due to latency between updates made in state, provincial or other NatureServe Network databases and when they appear on NatureServe Explorer, for state or provincial information you may wish to contact the data steward in your jurisdiction to obtain the most current data. Please refer to our Distribution Data Sources to find contact information for your jurisdiction.
Color legend for Distribution Map

U.S. & Canada State/Province Distribution
United States IA, IL, IN, MI, MN, OH, WI

Range Map
No map available.

U.S. Distribution by County Help
State County Name (FIPS Code)
IA Benton (19011), Black Hawk (19013), Bremer (19017), Cedar (19031), Delaware (19055)*, Dickinson (19059)*, Emmet (19063), Fayette (19065), Floyd (19067), Jackson (19097), Linn (19113), Louisa (19115)*, Mitchell (19131)*, Muscatine (19139)
IL Boone (17007), Carroll (17015), Cook (17031), Henderson (17071), Jo Daviess (17085), Kane (17089), Lee (17103), Ogle (17141), Tazewell (17179), Whiteside (17195), Winnebago (17201)
IN Elkhart (18039)*, Lagrange (18087), Tippecanoe (18157), White (18181)*
MI Barry (26015), Ionia (26067)*, Jackson (26075), Kalamazoo (26077)*, Kent (26081), St. Joseph (26149), Van Buren (26159)*
MN Anoka (27003)*, Carver (27019), Chisago (27025), Cottonwood (27033), Dakota (27037), Goodhue (27049), Hennepin (27053), Morrison (27097), Ramsey (27123), Renville (27129), Rice (27131), Scott (27139), Wabasha (27157), Washington (27163)
WI Dane (55025), Green (55045), Jefferson (55055), Pierce (55093), Polk (55095), Racine (55101), Rock (55105), St. Croix (55109), Walworth (55127), Washington (55131), Waukesha (55133)
* Extirpated/possibly extirpated
U.S. Distribution by Watershed Help
Watershed Region Help Watershed Name (Watershed Code)
04 St. Joseph (04050001)+, Kalamazoo (04050003)+, Upper Grand (04050004)+, Lower Grand (04050006)+, Thornapple (04050007)+, Raisin (04100002)+
05 Tippecanoe (05120106)+*, Middle Wabash-Little Vermilion (05120108)+
07 Elk-Nokasippi (07010104)+, Twin Cities (07010206)+, Hawk-Yellow Medicine (07020004)+, Lower Minnesota (07020012)+, Lower St. Croix (07030005)+, Rush-Vermillion (07040001)+, Cannon (07040002)+, Zumbro (07040004)+, Turkey (07060004)+, Apple-Plum (07060005)+, Maquoketa (07060006)+*, Copperas-Duck (07080101)+, Upper Wapsipinicon (07080102)+, Flint-Henderson (07080104)+, Upper Cedar (07080201)+, Shell Rock (07080202)+*, Middle Cedar (07080205)+, Lower Cedar (07080206)+, Lower Iowa (07080209)+*, Upper Rock (07090001)+, Crawfish (07090002)+, Pecatonica (07090003)+, Sugar (07090004)+, Lower Rock (07090005)+, Des Moines Headwaters (07100001)+, Upper Des Moines (07100002)+, East Fork Des Moines (07100003)+*, Chicago (07120003)+, Upper Fox (07120006)+, Lower Fox (07120007)+, Lower Illinois-Lake Chautauqua (07130003)+
10 Little Sioux (10230003)+*
+ Natural heritage record(s) exist for this watershed
* Extirpated/possibly extirpated
Ecology & Life History
Technical Description: Besseya bullii is a perennial herb with a basal rosette of hairy, oval to heart-shaped leaves, rounded at the apex and cordate at the base. Produces one or more hairy, unbranched stems 2-4 dm in height, with a few small, nearly sessile leaves and a dense cylindrical spike of small yellow flowers. The flower is bilabiate, the lower lip is irregularly three-lobed. The two stamens are exserted, the style is slender with a simple stigma. The capsule is rounded, somewhat flattened, about 4-8 mm long and many-seeded (Gleason, 1952; Fernald, 1950).
Ecology Comments:

B. bullii occurs in small scattered patches with widely variable numbers of plants per patch. See Bowles (1985) for detailed demographics. Menges (1986), Smith (1982), and Chapman (1981) also comment on demographics.

Kitten tails is a perennial, producing only basal leaves the first season and possibly the second season as well (Smith, pers. comm.). Researchers are uncertain at what age the plant will begin to flower. Menges and Wade (1985) noted that over one-third of the plants observed only had three or fewer basal leaves. Frantz (1985) and Menges and Wade (1985) found reproductive individuals had more and larger basal leaves than the non-reproductive plants.

Plants usually bloom in May, with fruits dehisced by the end of June. The yellow flowers are zygomorphic, a shape adapted for pollination by Hymenopterans. Although no one has reported on the pollinators of B. bullii, Macior (1974) collected several species of Bombus on a western species, B. alpina. It is not known whether the plant spreads rhizomatously, although Bowles (1985) states that kitten tails appears to spread vegetatively by short rhizomes.

Frantz (1985) determined fruit set on five inflorescences and found a range of 17 to 59 capsules per inflorescence. She counted the number of seeds per fruit for four capsules and found a range of 1-24 seeds per capsule. Smith (pers. comm.) noted good seed production in plants he has observed in Minnesota. Menges (1986) found 93 capsules on the average inflorescence and an average of seven seeds per capsule. Distance for seed dispersal is limited. The small flat seeds are released from the capsules when the wind rattles the dry flower stalks (Frantz, 1985; Chapman, 1981).

Under controlled seed germination tests Frantz (1985) discovered that mature seeds collected in June or July would germinate readily (90%) for one or two months after collection. With the onset of dormancy, seeds would not germinate under dry or moist stratification. Seeds pre-treated with gibberellic acid showed low germination rates (Kis, 1984). Results from germination experiments being conducted by Menges should be available in 1986.

Habitat Comments: Curtis (1959) states that the range for B. bullii is confined to savannas of the midwest. The plant is more common in the oak openings than in the prairies in Wisconsin. Meyer (pers. comm.) has observed kitten tails in old grazed pastures with Poa pratensis and Taraxacum officinale, and with mesic forest species along the St. Croix River in Wisconsin. Ownbey (pers. comm.) has found the plant in open woods and on flat, grassy slopes in Minnesota. In Indiana, Deams (1940) observed Berberis canadensis and Pedicularis canadensis as associates while Menges (pers. comm.) and McGrath (pers. comm.) found kitten tails in an edge thicket with Rhus aromatica and Prunus virginiana. In Michigan, Chapman (1981) found kitten tails under open to moderately dense canopies with Quercus velutina and Carya glabra the most common dominants. According to Chapman, the understory cover was sparse to moderate, a prairie-like ground cover with Poa compressa and Andropogon scoparius as dominant herbs.

For detailed habitat descriptions and lists of associates in Illinois, see Bowles (1985). For associates in Minnesota and Wisconsin, see Smith (1982) and Swink and Wilhelm (1979) respectively.

Pennell (1935) described B. bullii as occurring on glacially formed terrain, from moraines to outwash. This is consistent with the plant's occurrences in Minnesota: in well-sorted gravel on kames, on moraines, and sandy, gravelly loose soil, and north-facing slopes (Smith, pers. comm.); in Wisconsin: on sandy and gravelly ridges (Salamun, 1951), gravelly and clayey morainic hilltops (Swink and Wilhelm, 1979); in Illinois: on gravel hill prairies (Betz, pers. comm.); in Indiana: on high gravelly stream banks (Deam, 1940), xeric gravel hill prairies (Menges and Wade, 1985); in Michigan: on steep ridges or bluffs of glacially-deposited material (Chapman, 1981); and in Iowa in dry, sandy soils on well-drained slopes (Ewert, pers. comm.).

Economic Attributes Not yet assessed
Management Summary
Stewardship Overview:

B. bullii requires open woods or savanna habitat. Management should be used to regain or maintain such conditions if edaphic factors are not sufficient. Fire can help reduce and control woody vegetation, although other treatments may be needed where fire has been excluded for many years. The role of grazing and possible benefits of mowing are not well known. Monitoring should track the size of populations, flower and seed production, and recruitment of new individuals to help assess the effectiveness of management. Monitoring canopy cover and depth of litter may provide some suggestive correlations. Studying the factors critical to new recruitment is high priority for research.

Restoration Potential:

Recovery is not promising at present. Seed germination studies have been only minimally successful and seedling transplants have failed (Frantz, 1985). Menges and Wade (1985) are presently conducting seed germination tests and information may be available in 1986.

Preserve Selection & Design Considerations:

Purchase those sites with the potential for destructive sand and gravel mining operations. To prevent further losses in Indiana at the Wea Creek Gravel Hill Prairie, stabilize the eroding cliff face at the old gravel mine. Include enough buffer to safely practice prairie management techniques, i.e. fire, shrub and tree removal. Secure protection agreements for sites on privately owned land.

Monitoring Requirements:

Populations should be monitored to assess their stability and vulnerability. Information is lacking on population structure, annual flower and seed production, recruitment, longevity of individuals, the potential for asexual reproduction. Comparing the growth responses of plants in the shade with plants in the open, heavy litter vs. a bare gravel substrate could provide suggestive correlations for management.

A demographic study in progress in Michigan includes marking individual plants, measuring the length of the longest leaves, recording the number of flowering stems per plant, and counting the number of non-flowering plants (Crispin, pers. comm.). In Minnesota, individual plants in measured plots are mapped on a bi-coordinate system and information is being collected on age structure, mortality, recruitment, and distribution (Smith, pers. comm.). A demographic study similar to Smith's is being planned for Wisconsin (Kohring, pers. comm.).

Monitoring Programs:

In Michigan contact: Sue Crispin, Coordinator/Botanist, Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Stevens T. Mason Bldg., P.O. Box 30028, Lansing, Michigan 48909. (517) 373-1552.

In Minnesota contact: Welby Smith, Botanist, Minnesota Natural Heritage Program, Dept. of Natural Resources, Box 6, St. Paul, Minnesota 55155. (612) 296-4284.

For Wisconsin contact: Peg Kohring, Director of Land Stewardship, Minnesota Field Office, The Nature Conservancy, 1313 5th St., SE, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55414. (612) 379-2134.

Management Research Programs:

Menges (pers. comm.) is conducting a demographic study and seed germination experiments on B. bullii in Indiana. Menges' objectives are to gather baseline data on population structure and reproductive output. To learn more about seed germination and seedling establishment, seeds were sown in marked plots in four different types of cover. A permanent grid system that was established will enable future workers to note growth, recruitment, and mortality (Menges, 1986). He has also studied the community structure at the site with ordination and classification techniques. Contact: Eric Menges, Holcomb Research Institute Biotic Resources Program, Butler University, 4600 Sunset Avenue, Indianapolis, Indiana 46208. (317) 283-9555.

Management Research Needs:

Active management does not appear to be necessary in the gravel prairie sites. Competition is not as severe in the gravel substrate due to the somewhat xeric conditions and the erosion potential (Betz, pers. comm.; Chapman, 1981).

More frequent management is required for those sites in the woods, thickets, or woods borders. Plants growing in shade appear to be smaller in size and have less reproductive vigor (Ownbey, Smith, Crispin, pers. comm.).

Population/Occurrence Delineation Not yet assessed
Population/Occurrence Viability
U.S. Invasive Species Impact Rank (I-Rank) Not yet assessed
NatureServe Conservation Status Factors Edition Date: 03Apr2014
NatureServe Conservation Status Factors Author: Doyle, K. and L. Oliver
Management Information Edition Date: 18Feb1986
Management Information Edition Author: JOYCE BENDER

Botanical data developed by NatureServe and its network of natural heritage programs (see Local Programs), The North Carolina Botanical Garden, and other contributors and cooperators (see Sources).



  • Bowles, M.L. 1985. Report on the status of Wulfenia bullii in Illinois. The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Unpubl.

  • Chapman, K.A. 1981. Besseya bullii (Eaton) Rydb. Kitten tails (Scrophulariaceae) in Michigan. Report to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

  • Chi, K. and B. Molano-Flores. 2016.  Reproductive morphology of Synthyris bullii, a rare Midwestern endemic species, in association with habitat degradation.  The Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 143(2): 169- 179.

  • Curtis, J. T. 1959. The Vegetation of Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI.

  • Deam, C. C. 1940. Flora of Indiana. Division of Forestry, Dept. of Conservation, Indianapolis, Indiana. 1236 pp.

  • Deam, C.C. 1940. Flora of Indiana. Indiana Department of Conservation, Division of Forestry, Indianapolis. 1236 pp.

  • Fernald, M. L. 1950. Gray's manual of botany. 8th edition. Corrected printing (1970). D. Van Nostrand Company, New York. 1632 pp.

  • Frantz, V. 1985. Besseya bullii: Report to the Indiana Nature Conservancy. Revised copy. Indiana Field Office, Indianapolis.

  • Gleason, H. A., and A. Cronquist. 1991. Manual of vascular plants of northeastern United States and adjacent Canada. Second Edition. New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York. 910 pp.

  • Gleason, H.A. 1952. The new Britton and Brown illustrated flora of the northeastern United States and adjacent Canada. 3 volumes. Hafner Press, New York. 1732 pp.

  • Great Plains Flora Association. 1986. Flora of the Great Plains. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas. 1,402 pp.

  • Kartesz, J. T. 1991. Synonym names from 1991 checklist, as extracted by Larry Morse, TNC, June 1991.

  • Kartesz, J.T. 1994. A synonymized checklist of the vascular flora of the United States, Canada, and Greenland. 2nd edition. 2 vols. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

  • Kis, B. 1984. Germination of prairie plants under ambient and controlled conditions. Mich. Bot. 23:93-94.


  • Macior, L. W. 1974. Pollination ecology of the Front Range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Melanderia Vol. 15: 1-59.

  • Menges, Eric. and K. A. Wade. 1985. Community structure of an Indiana gravel hill prairie, with special reference to the state endangered Besseya bullii. Abstract of report to the Indiana Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

  • NatureServe. 2008. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. Version 7.0. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. . Accessed 3 June 2008.

  • NatureServe: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. Version 1.1. Arlington, Virginia, USA: Association for Biodiversity Information. Available: . (Accessed: February 20, 2001)

  • Nekola, J. C. 1990. Rare Iowa plant notes from the R. V. Drexler Herbarium. Journal of the Iowa Academy of Sciences 97(1):55-73.

  • Pennell, F.W. 1933. A revision of SYNTHYRIS and BESSEYA. Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. Philadelphia 85:77-106.

  • Pennell, F.W. 1935. The Scrophulariaceae of eastern temperate North America. Acad. Nat. Sci. Phil. Monogr. 1. 649pp.

  • Pennell, F.W. 1935. The scrophulariaceae of eastern temperate North America. Acad. Nat. Sci. Philadephia Monographs, No. 1.

  • Salamun, P. J. 1951. Preliminary reports on the flora of Wisconsin #36. Trans. Wisconsin Acad. Sci. Arts and Letters 40 (2):133.

  • Swink, F., and G. Wilhelm. 1979. Plants of the Chicago Region, Revised and Expanded Edition. The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, Illinois. 922 pp.


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