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.
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.
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.
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.
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.