Northern Kittentails – Synthyris borealis

Alaska Wildflowers | Purple

Northern kittentails

Synthyris borealis

Common Names

Alaska kittentails
Alaska kitten tails
Alaska speedwell
Alaska Synthyris
Northern kittentails
synthyris boréal

Synonyms

Veronica alaskensis (homotypic)
While some botanical authorities, including the authors of a 2004 study published in the journal Taxon, have proposed moving this species to the Veronica genus, not all experts agree with this reclassification. The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) lists Veronica alaskensis as a homotypic synonym for Synthyris borealis, indicating that both names refer to the same species. While the Vascular Plants of Canada CANADENSYS lists Synthyris borealis as the synonym to Veronica alaskensis. This reflects ongoing debates in the botanical community about the correct classification of this plant. As of this writing (May 2023), the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), which I use for classification on this website, does not recognize the name Veronica alaskensis. However, this may be updated in the future. For more information, see the note in my classification section.

Subspecies

none

Genus: Synthyris
Family: Plantaginaceae
Order: Lamiales
full classification

Duration – Growth Habit

Perennial – Forb/herb



Identification and Information

The northern kittentail (Synthyris borealis), also frequently called the Alaska kittentail, is a villose-hirsute (covered with long, soft hairs) plant that stems from an ascending, often freely branched rhizome. The plant’s stems range from 5-20 cm in height and are covered in long, multicellular hairs. It has petioles of 2-3 cm in length, and the leaf blades are 1-2 cm long, cordate (heart-shaped), and pedately lobed, with the incisions extending much less than half the distance to the midrib. The divisions are dentate, with triangular, more or less obtuse, firm, or callose teeth.

The flowering stem is permanently erect, measuring 5-6 cm tall at anthesis (the period during which the flower is fully open and functional) and growing to 8-12 cm tall when fruiting. Below the inflorescence, there are two to four bract-like leaves that are 2 cm or less in length and dentate. The spike-like raceme simulates a head, being 1-1.5 cm long at anthesis and growing to 3-4 cm long when fruiting. The pedicels are less than 1 mm long.

The sepals are four in number, lanceolate-linear, acute, and equally distinct, measuring 3-5 mm long. The two anterior sepals are slightly shorter. The corolla is 6-7 mm long and blue, with the lobes equaling the tube. The posterior lip of the corolla is arched and slightly wider and longer than each of the three anterior lobes. The filaments are 7 mm long, and the anthers are 1.2 mm long. The style is 6 mm long and straight.

The fruit of Synthyris borealis is a hirsute capsule 5 mm long. The seeds are 1 mm long, brown, flattened-hemispherical, and few in number.

Uses

For information only (typically historical) – I take no responsibility for adverse effects from the use of any plant.

Synthyris species are mainly ornamental plants. Their attractive foliage and blossoms make them a pleasing addition to gardens, particularly in rockeries and woodland settings.

To date, no specific information is available on the potential uses or toxicity of this Synthyris species to humans, pets, or livestock. However, the presence of these iridoid glycosides does not suggest any particular toxicity concern. As always, it’s best to avoid ingesting any plant unless it’s known to be safe and to keep all plants out of the reach of pets and children to prevent accidental ingestion.

Research has shown that Synthyris species contain the iridoid glycosides aucuboside and catalpol, which have been studied in other plant species for their potential medicinal properties. However, the presence of these compounds in Synthyris does not necessarily mean that the plant has the same potential uses or benefits. More research would be needed to determine if Synthyris has medicinal properties.

As for potential toxicity, aucuboside and catalpol are not generally considered toxic and are found in many plants that are used medicinally or are otherwise safe to consume. However, as with any plant, individual reactions can vary, and it’s always a good idea to exercise caution when handling or consuming plants, particularly those that have not been extensively studied for their effects on human health.

In conclusion, while Synthyris species are generally safe to handle and are not known to be toxic, they should not be consumed without more information about their potential effects on health. As ornamental plants, they can provide a beautiful and unique addition to gardens, particularly in settings that mimic their natural woodland habitats. As a general rule, don’t consume any plant you don’t have well-sourced and direct information about concerning its edibility.


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Distribution and Habitat

Synthyris borealis is endemic to the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Alaska, primarily distributed in areas that remained unglaciated. This plant thrives in a variety of habitats, including tundra heaths, fellfields, and talus slopes, at elevations ranging from 200–2500 m. It blooms from early to late June, with flowering occurring from May to July and fruiting from May to September.

Synthyris borealis is a perennial, dying back to its rhizome at the end of each growing season. It requires full sun for optimal growth but has shown adaptability to survive in various environments.

Classification

RankScientific Name (Common Name)
KingdomPlantae (plantes, Planta, Vegetal, plants)
   SubkingdomViridiplantae (green plants)
      InfrakingdomStreptophyta (land plants)
         SuperdivisionEmbryophyta 
            DivisionTracheophyta (vascular plants, tracheophytes)
               SubdivisionSpermatophytina (spermatophytes, seed plants, phanérogames)
                  ClassMagnoliopsida 
                     SuperorderAsteranae 
                        OrderLamiales 
                           FamilyPlantaginaceae (plantains)
                              GenusSynthyris Benth. (kittentails)
                                 SpeciesSynthyris borealis Pennell (northern kittentails)

In a compelling study, molecular phylogenetic analyses have prompted the reclassification of Synthyris borealis as Veronica alaskensis [Fischer, 2004]. This substantial taxonomic revision is rooted in the findings that Synthyris and Besseya are nested within the genus Veronica.

Interestingly, the first species of Synthyris were originally considered to be species of Veronica, but were reclassified in 1933. The recent study that moved Synthyris borealis back into Veronica in 2004 echoes this historical taxonomic uncertainty, illustrating the evolving nature of our understanding of these plants. It’s a fascinating (and tedious) journey of scientific discovery, where new information can reshape long-held classifications. It is one of the things that makes writing these guides and keeping them up to date very difficult.

Despite the compelling evidence, the adoption of this taxonomic change has been varied. While some floras and databases have accepted the reclassification of Synthyris borealis to Veronica alaskensis, others, including the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), have yet to update. This discrepancy underscores the fact that taxonomic revisions, even those supported by solid evidence, can take time to permeate all corners of the scientific community.

For the purpose of this guide, I usually adhere to the ITIS taxonomy for consistency. Therefore, I continue to list the species as Synthyris borealis. However, it’s important to note that this classification is subject to change as taxonomic consensus evolves, and it is possible, or even likely, that future updates to ITIS will reflect the shift to Veronica alaskensis.


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References and Further Reading

Guidebook

Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers, Pratt, Verna E. pg. 65

Classification and Taxonomy

Synthyris borealis Pennell Taxonomic Serial No.: 34057, ITIS Database

Albach, D. C., Fischer, M. A., & Chase, M. W. (2004). A new classification of the tribe Veroniceae—Problems and a possible solution. TAXON, 53(2), 429-452. https://doi.org/10.2307/4135620

Veronica alaskensis M.M. Martinéz Ortega & Albach, VASCAN Database

Uses

Acta Bot. Need. 19(3), June 1970 329 The occurrence of iridoid glycosides in the Scrophulariaceae, P. Kooiman

Map and Distribution

Synthyris borealis Pennell Published in: Pennell. (1933). In: Proc. Acad. Sc. Philad., 85: 88., GBIF Database

Synthyris borealis Alaska Kittentail, NatureServe Explorer

Description and Information

Synthyris borealis, Flora of North America

Synthyris borealis : Northern Kitten-tails, Central Yukon Species Inventory Project

Pennell, Francis W. “A Revision of Synthyris and Besseya.” Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, vol. 85, 1933, pp. 77–106. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4064170. Accessed 15 May 2023.

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