Blue-Eyed Grass, diminuitive irises

From California to New England, from Alaska to Texas there is a small, easily overlooked wildflower that is blooming now and will continue to do so for several more months, depending on where you are of course.  The flowers of this plant are small, only a little more than a centimeter across have six petals, a yellow center, and are often blue in color, hence one of the common generic names, Blue-Eyed Grass, although there are yellow and white variations.  To see them clearly you have to get close, crouching or laying on the ground.

Common Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium montanum)

You can see from the photo that the leaves of this diminutive plant are broad and flat, much like the leaves of the grass it grows amongst.  In Vermont there are several variations of this plant, Sisyrinchium montanum being the most common, hence the name, Common Blue-Eyed Grass, which is, unfortunately, not tremendously imaginative.  When it is not flowering it’s easy to see why it might be mistaken for a grass, it has a similar leaf shape and is of a similar height to the grass it grows amongst.  The flowers clearly set it apart though.  Petals are little flags to attract insects, birds, and in some cases lizards or mammals to the flower for pollination for which they are rewarded with nectar.  Grasses have no such need, like willows, poplars, and pines they rely on wind to distribute their pollen and petals are a hindrance and a waste of energy for a plant that uses wind rather than animals for pollination.

Wind pollinated grass flowers with Blue-Eyed Grass flowers in the background

Sisyrinchium, the Blue Eyed-Grasses are tiny irises.  The Iridaceae family is widespread and often used as ornamental plants in gardens or in bouquets.  The larger irises have showy, ornate, soft flowers that fold and flow in complicated shapes, looking little like the small, robust Sisyrinchium flowers.  In the wild, the larger irises tend to grow in places that are either damp, shady, or both.  The Blue-Eyed Grasses live in harsher regions, open meadows, occasionally on rocky ledges, the edges of open areas, in short, places that can get hot and dry.  This may partially explain their small, robust stature.

Like other irises Sisyrinchium has inferior ovaries, this is not a commentary on the quality of the ovaries, it is a botanical term meaning that the ovaries are below the flower rather than the flower surrounding the ovaries.  These little plants produce globular three-part capsules about the size of a BB filled with numerous little seeds.

Blue-Eyed Grass with immature seed capsules

I grew up looking at these little flowers on the wildflower rich coastal prairie of Northern California, but just a few days ago I discovered something new (to me) about them.  They are active, they open their flowers for the day and close them for the night.  I tried my hand at a time-lapse of a flower opening.  It’s a bit rough, but you get the picture.

Blue-Eyed Grass flower opening animation

I love finding out things, being surprised by life, experiencing the unexpected, and encountering things I do not know.  I’m glad that these little irises reminded me that such a small, seemingly mundane thing can be interesting and exciting.

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9 comments on “Blue-Eyed Grass, diminuitive irises

  1. caitlin says:

    Your post reminded me to look out for these guys in Maine! I found a small patch yesterday, on the side of the road near the trailhead for a beautiful Acadia beach. Of course the blue-eyed grass was just across the street from the actual picture-postcard attraction, but I loved stumbling upon it while everyone else loaded into/out of their cars. Great photos!

  2. […] the blue-eyed grass is still closed from the night (I wonder what time it opens?) […]

  3. Jenna says:

    I first stumbled across this wildflower several years ago and it has been a favorite of mine ever since. It definitely is too often over-looked! Thanks for sharing :)

  4. C Tayeh says:

    About pollination in this particular genus, you may find this reference interesting:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21527419
    S montana has trichomes, but not oil-producing ones.
    best regards

  5. arlobee says:

    Hello – I’m trying to find out what the grass flowers in picture #2 are. I recently photod something similar near my home and cannot identify. Here is a link to a magnified portion: http://www.westjersey.org/inflorescence.jpg

    • EarthKnight says:

      The detail on your photograph is great. It certainly does look a lot like the grass in my photo. I don’k now what it is.

      I find grasses extremely difficult to identify. The terminology is very specific and the details small and time dependent.

      There may be a local grass ID key for your area. More and more areas are involved in responsible social media species identification (eg. iNaturalsit.org) are putting local ID keys on line for free (eg. https://gobotany.newenglandwild.org/) and helping people learn more about where they live (eg. California Native Plant Society – http://www.cnps.org/).

      I took this photo in New England, so the second one is one place I might begin looking to identify the graminoids in my own photo.

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