Before I left UBC to head to California, Rose and I got interested in looking closely at the nearest relatives of Sunflower. In particular, Rose was looking to obtain an “outgroup” for her analyses of cpDNA phylogeny in the sunflowers. We found out that the sister-genus to sunflower is a little plant called Phoebathus, which consists of just two species, one diploid and one tetraploid. Both of them are perennials that are endemic to Florida.
After learning about the plant, I started looking for a way to get some samples. I learned very quickly that it’s basically not cultivated at all. So I contacted several naturalists from Florida who live near Phoebanthus country, and one of them (a gentleman named Wayne Matchett) volunteered to get us some tissue and seeds for the more common tetraploid species, Phoebanthus grandiflorus. It took a while for Wayne to locate a flowering population, and then to wait for the seed heads to mature (at my recommendation, he “bagged” the heads), but he finally managed to secure about 100 mature seeds, along with a sample of leaf tissue, both of which I am now in possession of.
I guess that I became obsessed with this plant because it is such an underdog compared to Helianthus. While Helianthus is a weedy, widespread, diverse, and dominant genus that has more or less conquered North America as well as the human race, the sibling genus to sunflower amounts to just two species, both of them found in what is probably the cushiest, least stringent environment in all of North America: Florida (sorry, Chris).
In any case, I’m going to apply for a permit to bring the seeds and tissue to UBC when I visit in a month or so. I might also try to keep some here in California and try growing it here to see how it performs. In addition to providing a nice outgroup for phylogenetic analyses, it might be cool to do other comparisons between the vivacious head-turner that is Helianathus, and its runty little sister genus, Phoebanthus.
In the meantime, here are some of Wayne’s photos: