Meet the Natives: Sisyrinchiums

THIS IS PROBABLY MY FAVORITE NATIVE PLANT. I’m not completely sure why the unassuming wildflower commonly known as “blue eyed grass” enchants me the way it does. Maybe it’s because it’s a member of the iris family, and many species resemble doll’s house versions of that plant, which is also a favorite of mine. Maybe it’s because many species resemble grasses, but with a twist—the flat but fleshy (more iris-like) leaves are tougher, and on sunny days in June and July the “grass” explodes with small but conspicuous flowers. Many people think that these little blue "eyes" seem to wink at you when wind rustles the plants' foliage.

There are many species of Sisyrinchiums, all native to the New World. No matter where you live in North America, you can probably find one or more locally native species. Here on the East Coast, S. montanum (shown in the photo above) grows in abandoned fields and along roadsides, where it spreads readily by seed and manages to survive despite competition from far more aggressive plants. Many of my neighbors don't distinguish the blue-eyed grass from the Eurasian weeds that also flourish on roadsides here, and I often think they don't appreciate it enough.

I've been deliberately cultivating it in my flower borders, and as the photo below shows, I think I've already demonstrated that it can put on quite a show when given a little TLC and freed from competition with other plants. At about 8 inches, these plants are easily 50% taller than most wild-grown Sisyriunchiums, and have many, many more blooms.

Each of these flowers blooms only for a day, and then only when the sun is shining. However, the plants can bloom for weeks. Each flower is followed by a seed capsule containing many small, dark seeds. Shaking these over bare soil will give you a big crop of Sisyrinchiums the following year.

Most Sisyrinchiums, such as S. idahoense on the West Coast and S. montanum on the East, have purplish blue flowers with a golden center. Sometimes a a plant with white flowers is found, and some horticulturists are trying to breed cultivars. In my (late, lamented) West Coast garden, I used to grow a cultivar named "Quaint & Queer," with flowers that were brownish blue (some people consider it a chocolate colour and some photos make it look almost pink) with yellow tips. An internet search also turned up cultivars called "Devon Skies" (compact form, with blue flowers), "Biscutella" (brownish flowers similar to those of "Quaint & Queer"), "California Skies" (blue flowers), "E.K.Balls" (aka "Balls Mauve," with pinkish blue flowers), "Lucerne" (very large blue flowers), "Mrs. Spivey" (I couldn't find a picture of this one but apparently the flowers are white or near-white), and "Pole Star" (aka "North Star"), which apparently resembles "Mrs. Spivey" but with fewer, larger flowers. Most of these seem to be cultivars of S. angustifolium, a blue-eyed grass that is native to and fairly common in the East.

White is the second-most-common bloom color found among the Sisyrinchiums. However, S. californicum is a bright golden yellow. A West Coast native formerly called S. douglasii has been moved into the Olysinium genus, along with other ex-Sisyrinchiums that have rounder stems and flowers that hang. But it’s also a charmer, with nodding reddish purple blooms, as shown below.

Sadly, several Eastern species of Sisyrinchiums are threatened or endangered.

Most Sisyrinchiums are adapted to damp prairies and meadows. They need full sun to bloom most profusely but adapt to part shade and will grow well with other plants, even ones that threaten to shade them out. The easiest way to introduce them to any area is simply to sprinkle the seeds over the bed. (You can try transplanting them, but I find that they don't always like being moved, and they come so well from seed that it's easier to start them that way.) The plants will then pop up wherever there's a bit of space for them, filling in holes in your plantings in the process. They can tolerate dry weather once established, but do better in moist soil, especially in spring. Good drainage is a plus, but S. montanum is doing just fine in my poorly drained front yard. Encourage them to naturalize if you can, because the individual plants tend to be short-lived.


jodi said...

I read this post last week, then got caught up in other things and didn't comment. Blue-eyed grass has long been a favourite flower with me--I mean LONG, as in childhood. I remember finding it in the meadow across the road from my DeLong grandparents' homestead in Lunenburg County, and being delighted with it. It grows in our pasture, (among other spots) and when I crank at the buttercups in the pasture, and threaten to plow and reseed, I think of the Sisyrinchium, the wild strawberries, and the possibility that some of the wild orchids are in the pasture too--and I tell the horse and donkey they're not starving, by a long shot!

Wild Flora said...

So nice to find another Sisyrinchium fan!

Elizabeth Joy said...

I just found your blog through the mention Jodi made on your blog about you. I've been having fun looking around here. I have loved Grass Widows for as long as I known them here on the west coast, and just put some photos of them on my blog. I didn't know though that S. douglasii had been moved to a new genus. That is interesting, because it does appear quite different from blue-eyed grass.

I'll be eager to hear what else you have to write, and looking for the native bees.

Elizabeth Joy

Anonymous said...

Hello, just moved to CT a year ago. The house we bout boasted a beautiful grassy front and back lawn; to my surprise it completely dried out for it spring and I awoke one day to find beutiful small blueish flowers arranged in tufts comming out. I did a search to find out more and it seems I own two yards of stout blue-eyed grass. I am in love!