Bluets, Quaker Bonnets, Venus’ Pride – Flowers

(Houstonia ccerulea)

Madder family

Flowers—Very small, light to purplish blue or white, with yellow centre, and borne at end of each erect slender stem that rises from 3 to 7 in. high. Corolla funnel-shaped, with 4 oval, pointed, spreading lobes that equal the slender tube in length; rarely the corolla has more divisions; 4 stamens inserted on tube of corolla; 2 stigmas; calyx 4-lobed. Leaves: Opposite, seated on stem, oblong, tiny; the lower ones spatulate. Fruit: A 2-lobed pod, broader than long, its upper half free from calyx ; seeds deeply concave. Rootstock : Slender, spreading, forming dense tufts.

Preferred Habitat—Moist meadows, wet rocks and banks. Flowering Season—April—July, or sparsely through summer. Distribution—Eastern Canada and United States west to Michigan, south to Georgia and Alabama.

Millions of these dainty wee flowers, scattered through the grass of moist meadows and by the wayside, reflect the blue and the serenity of heaven in their pure, upturned faces. Where the white variety grows, one might think a light snowfall had powdered the grass, or a milky way of tiny floral stars had streaked a terrestrial path. Linnaeus named the flower for Dr. Houston, a young English physician, botanist, and collector, who died in South America in 1733, after an exhausting tramp about the Gulf of Mexico.

To secure cross-fertilization, the object toward which so much marvellous floral organism is directed, this little plant puts forth two forms of blossoms—one with the stamens in the lower portion of the corolla tube, and the stigmas exserted; the other form with the stigmas below, and the stamens elevated to the mouth of the corolla. But the two kinds do not grow in the same patch, seed from either producing after its kind. Many insects visit these blossoms, but chiefly small bees and butterflies. Conspicuous among the latter is the common little meadow fritillary (Brenthis bellona), whose tawny, dark-speckled wings expand and close in apparent ecstasy as he tastes the tiny drop of nectar in each dainty enamelled cup. Coming to feast with his tongue dusted from anthers nearest the nectary, he pollenizes the large stigmas of a short-styled blossom without touching its tall anthers. But it is evident that he could not be depended on to fertilize the long-styled form, with its smaller stigma, because of this ability to insert his slender tongue from the side where it avoids contact. Flies and beetles enter the blossoms, but small bees are best adapted as allround benefactors. This simple-looking blossom, that measures barely half an inch across, is clever enough to multiply its lovely species a thousand fold, while many a larger, and therefore one might suppose a wiser, flower dwindles toward extinction.

John Burroughs found a single bluet in blossom one January, near Washington, when the clump of earth on which it grew was frozen solid. A pot of roots gathered in autumn and placed in a sunny window has sent up a little colony of star-like flowers throughout a winter.