These intensely blue flowers are so tiny that we often overlook them in our lawns, but they are one of the first cheerful signs of spring. They are alien invaders, and perhaps they have caused untold damage to our environment; but it’s hard to be angry at a plant that’s both tiny and beautiful. These plants were blooming in early May along the Salamander Trail in Fox Chapel..
The flowers of the Persian Speedwell have yellow centers, fading to white veined with blue, the blue predominating toward the outer edges of the petals, and giving the overall impression of a blue flower from a short distance. The leaves are roundish, sessile near the top of thestem and on short petioles below, gently toothed, somewhat hairy. The plant seldom exceeds the height of a few inches, and can often pass unmolested under a lawnmower blade.
This description will have to do, since Gray and his contemporaries did not describe the plant. Between their time and ours it has spread to every state in the union except Hawaii and North Dakota.
These ubiquitous weeds are found in every lawn, in sidewalk cracks, along the edge of the street, and anywhere else they can gain a foothold; these particular plants were growing along the roadside in Highland Park, where they were blooming in the middle of June. They are actually relatives (according to modern genetic studies) of our garden snapdragons, to which, however, they bear little superficial resemblance. The unmistakable flower heads look like some imaginative artist’s conception of plant life on another planet. A tea made from the leaves supposedly has benefit against coughs, but as with all herbal medicines that have not been adequately studied, one must place a heavy emphasis on the word “supposedly.”
Gray describes the genus and the species:
PLANTÀGO [Tourn.] L. PLANTAIN, RIBWORT. Calyx of 4 imbricated persistent sepals, mostly with dry membranaceous margins. Corolla salver-form or rotate, withering on the pod, the border 4- parted. Stamens 4, or rarely 2, in all or some flowers with long and weak exserted filaments, and fugacious 2-celled anthers. Ovary 2 (or in P. decipiens falsely 3-4)-celled, with 1-several ovules in each cell. Style and long hairy stigma single, filiform. Capsule 2-celled, 2-several-seeded, opening transversely, во that the top falls off like a lid and the loose partition (which bears the peltate seeds) falls away. Embryo straight, in fleshy albumen. — Leaves ribbed. Flowers whitish, small, in a bracted spike or head, raised on a naked scape. (The Latin name.)
P. lanceolàta, L. (RIB GRASS, RIPPLE GRASS, ENGLISH P.) Mostly hairy; scape grooved-angled, at length much longer than the lanceolate or lance-oblong leaves, slender, 2-7 dm. high; spike dense, at first capitate, in age cylindrical; bracts and sepals scarious, brownish ; seeds 2, hollowed on the face. — Very common in grass land. (Nat. from Eu.)
Adaptable to many different lighting conditions; we wrote earlier that Foxglove Beardtongue “likes a sunny open field or clearing, although it will tolerate some shade,” but this one was growing in quite deep shade in a thicket in Schenley Park. It was blooming in early June.
A relative of snapdragons and Butter-and-Eggs, this cheery flower also bears a passing resemblance to a foxglove, whence both the common and scientific names. The name “Beardtongue” comes from the hairy stamen visible in each flower.
Most earlier botanical references spell the genus name Pentstemon, which may be more etymologically correct but apparently is not the way it was spelled in the original description.
Traditionally, botanists placed snapdragons and their allies in the Snapdragon or Figwort family, Scrophulariaceae; but modern genetic research has led botanists to move them into the Plantain family, Plantaginaceae.
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Gray makes this species a variety of P. laevigatus, so we turn to Alphonso Wood for a description of the genus and the species more in line with the consensus of modern botanists:
PENTSTEMON, L. Beard-tongue. Calyx deeply 5-cleft. Cor. elongated, often ventricous, lower lip 3-lobed, spreading. The fifth filament (tongue) sterile, bearded, longer than the rest or about as long; anth. smooth. Seeds numerous, angular, not margined. Perennial N. American, branching, paniculate. Leaves opposite, the lower petiolate, upper sessile or clasping. Flowers showy, red, violet, blue, or white, in Summer.
Native E. of the Mississippi River, sometimes cultivated.
Leaves undivided, serrulate. Sterile filament (tongue) bearded.
P. digitalis N. Glabrous; leaves elliptic to lanceolate, the upper clasping; flowers many, large, corolla tube abruptly enlarged to bell-form, pale blue or purplish, 12—15″ long, throat widely open, beardless. Rich soils, Pa., W. and S.