JUST ONE: Satin-flower, aka Grass-widow

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In my “Just One” series I explore native Pacific Northwest plants one at a time. Like other posts in the series, this one includes personal impressions and factual information. You can find more of these posts by clicking “Just One” in the category list below.

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Why this flower? Why now? Because it’s in bloom! I had no idea this delicate beauty might be blooming last week with temperatures dipping well below freezing night after night and snow on the ground.

2. This is what it looked like at my house on February 24th.

On the same day the photo above was made, a friend saw Grass-widows in full flower on a steep hill where we had seen them last year, two weeks later (March 8th, 2021). In 2020 I photographed Satin-flowers in early April on an open, grassy slope about a thousand feet higher and four miles north. In 2019 I photographed the first Satin-flowers I had ever seen, almost hidden on a grass-covered bald at sea level. It was March 26th. Looking at those dates and the snow in the photo, you can see why I didn’t expect a tender flower to be blooming on that cold, wintery day. However, before the cold spell, the weather had been considerably warmer.

To my mind, the Stain-flower is the essence of wild flower, a flower that is truly wild. Its fragile, purple bells thrive in places that are rugged and undisturbed. On a steep coastal bluff, a sagebrush-dotted plateau, or a rocky hill above a mighty river, fleeting dots of intense color appear for a brief period every spring. This diminutive beauty may be one of the first wildflowers to bloom on Fidalgo Island but few people know it – the blossoms are easily overlooked, they flower for a very brief time, and they’re not particularly common.

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About that name! People in our region who are familiar with this flower call it a Grass-widow. The reason for this name is obscure. Other than the fact that the species often grows in grassy places, I find the name irrelevant, even off-putting. Another name for the plant is Satin-flower, which alludes to the flower’s attractive, satiny sheen. Like many flowers, this one has a number of common names, including Purple-eyed grass but I prefer Satin-flower.

The confusion from having multiple common names is supposed to be solved by assigning a single, agreed-upon, Latin name to each species of living thing discovered by science. Unfortunately, even scientific names change when new information reveals new connections, often on a microscopic level. Currently, Satin-flower is a member of the Iris family and is named Olsynium douglasii. According to Wikipedia, Olsynium comes from Greek and describes the flower’s joined stamens. Douglasii refers to David Douglas, a truly intrepid explorer who hiked thousands of miles across rugged landscapes, back in the early 1800s. He had been hired by England’s Royal Horticultural Society to find new plants that might be of interest to wealthy British gardeners. This endeavor entailed roughing it in barely-charted territories, having enough knowledge about plants to find new species, and figuring out how to get seeds safely shipped to England. Douglas was very good at his work but his efforts were cut short by a tragic accident. When he was only 34 he fell into a pit used to trap wild bulls in Hawaii. What a dramatic end for a plant collector! Those were different times.

The Satin-flower is the sole member of its genus that isn’t native to South America. It’s been recorded from southern British Columbia to northern California on both sides of the mountains, ranging only as far east as northeastern Utah. All of the Olsyniums prefer sunny slopes that are wet in winter and spring but dry out in summer. Like other spring ephemerals, our Satin-flowers fade away well before summer and go dormant during the driest part of the year.

5. A bud peeks out from its protective sheath.
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7. Broadleaf stonecrop, a native plant that blooms in summer, makes an attractive background for a clump of Satin-flower.
8.

Spring ephemerals appear when winter is on its last legs and spring is whispering in your ear. When the ground is just beginning to warm up and the leaves on the trees aren’t out yet, spring ephemerals take advantage of a brief window of time when plenty of light shines on the forest floor. It’s easy to miss them because their growth cycle passes quickly – some of them bloom for only a day or two. Crocuses, violets, Spring beauty, Bloodroot, and trilliums, beloved by gardeners and nature-lovers, are examples of spring ephemerals.

The Satin-flower is a little different but follows the same general schedule. It’s not a woodland plant and usually has plenty of light in the open places where it grows. But the lack of shade and quick-draining soil can make for a very dry, difficult summer. That’s why this flower blooms so early – it’s taking advantage of the abundance of moisture in the ground from winter rains (or snow). When summer arrives, the plant has already finished flowering and set seed but underground, fleshy roots are busy storing energy for next year.

9. The purple color changes with the light – warmer in sunlight, cooler in shade.

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Last year when I saw a dozen Satin-flower clumps blooming on a steep, grassy hill I almost cried. I’d been looking for them where I first found them in 2019 but I didn’t see any there – maybe it was too late and I’d have to wait another year. So the little flowers growing happily just a mile away were a joyful sight. Here, water races through the pass at a rate that would challenge even an experienced boater. Across the pass piles of dark rock plunge toward the water under a thick forest of tall Douglas firs. The trail threads between twisted trees and precipitous cliffs where one false step might land you in cold water. That wild hillside is a stunning setting for the little purple gems to display their colors.

Last week I went back to see them again. The snow had melted off the slope and the flowers shone like tiny beacons in the sunlight. Across the water, patches of snow whitened the rocks.

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12. February 25th, 2022. Snow clings to the rocks and bushes across the water.

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These delicate beauties have a delightful way of gracing rugged, sometimes inaccessible places with fleeting splashes of pure color. Today a song was going through my head – Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” I almost always tear up when I hear it. It occurred to me that Louis Armstrong gave that song the same appealing juxtaposition of tender and tough that I admired when I looked at the Satin-flowers blooming at the pass.

Speaking of juxtaposing the tender and the tough, there is the situation in Ukraine. Today I had lunch at a Polish-Ukrainian restaurant. While we were there the door swung open again and again as neighbors brought donations of food, diapers, and other supplies that will be sent to Ukraine later this week. As boxes and bags filled the restaurant, my eyes welled up. It’s a powerful, human bond that connects people here to people in a faraway country dealing with an impossible situation.

If you’ve been wondering how you can help ease things for the people of Ukraine, this link has many good suggestions.

Ukraine, We Are With You!

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54 comments

  1. It’s an ongoing nightmare, Ukraine, isn’t it? So many people trying so hard to alleviate a situation which should never have arisen. Sometimes the only sanity is to escape into the beauty of wildflowers.

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  2. You have chronicled here dates when you first saw the Satin-flower blooms, such as March 8, 2021 etc. The first date I saw a Satin-flower is today – March 3, 2022 – courtesy of this post of yours and your exquisite photos. I had no idea of their fragile beauty. Your eloquent passage captures them so: “Spring ephemerals appear when winter is on its last legs and spring is whispering in your ear.” And I appreciate your segue into the situation in Ukraine – blogging as though the world is still however normal it was before February 24th feels tone-deaf. The neighbor who lives closest to me here is from Ukraine and studied art history in Kyiv. The stories he.can tell about the incredible artworks and culture of Ukraine! His entire family is still there apart from his American wife. The daily updates from them that he shares with me are heartwrenching. When he and they lose the ability to stay in touch – no phone, no text, no email or internet – the “not knowing” will be sheer hell. Sorry for the digression, Lynn. Thank you for letting spring whisper in our ears today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s certainly not a well-known flower, with the limited range and short bloom-time. I guess we could say it blooms when the herons are in breeding plumage and thinking about nesting. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Knowing someone from Ukraine brings it home, doesn’t it? I hope your neighbor’s family gets through this without too much trauma. Thanks for your comment, Babsje, take care.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I so enjoy occasionally getting lost in the nature of your wonderfully written and beautifully photographed posts. And now a phrase I didnโ€™t know before, โ€œSpring Ephemeralโ€, allows me to identify with that little flower, enjoying such a brief bloom in the early spring. Makes me wonder what flowers other people identify with. Thanks for the fleeting joy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cool, it’s good to know you’re still here. I bet it’s still pretty cold where you are but hopefully, the signs of spring are coming. There should be spring ephemerals in the woods near you, it’s just a matter of looking for them at the right time. I really like the idea that you identified with the flower, then wondered what flowers other people identify with. I always identified with Great blue herons. I’m not sure about a specific flower. I feel close to many of them but….I have to think about that. Thanks for leaving a lovely comment!

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  4. Wonderful pictures of this beautiful and tender flower. A real wild one, yes! The wirrwarr over the plants names sometimes drive me crazy! On the other side: I like the different names ordinary (not scientific) people give to the flowers, the way they experience them.
    The contrast of the rough situations where they grow and the tenderness of these flowers is touching! These days I see so many more parallels between nature and “our human world” (which is nature too, actually) as usual. And I agree, to see the help for the Ukraine and the participation all over the world is touching too. Sometimes at least many humans, if not all, can stand together.
    And finally: I love that song! Thanks for this.

    Liked by 2 people

    • OK, wirrwarr is a new one. Yes, it’s crazy how many times some of the names change and you have a good point about the wisdom of common names. But there’s a plant people call “Ironwood” in the west because of its strong wood and people in the east have the same name for a completely different plant. So that makes me crazy. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I hope you’ll write about some of the parallels you see between nature and the human environment, that would be interesting. Many humans standing together is a refreshing idea these days! Let’s hope the message in “What a Wonderful World” gradually overcomes the messages from people who are looking for power at any expense. Thanks for being here, Almuth, have a good day!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A beautiful, sensitive and dreamy song… a simple and ephemeral detail of nature… they are here, side by side to ease that pain that has settled in us in the last few days and that hurts, hurts, and hurts…
    A pain that in reality has nothing to do with the pain of those suffering and fleeing people….
    All this is deeply sad.
    I also made my monetary donation two days ago. Really, I can’t do much more.
    As always, beautiful photos!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Everything seems to be starting a little earlier this year, also there for you, because the winter was pretty mild overall. The satin-flower actually looks much too delicate and vulnerable to bloom at a time when hard frost is still a possibility. Or does she know more than we do?

    I like how you expose the subject against the green, especially in No. 4 you still leave a bit of their scrubby surroundings visible, and yet the little flower doesn’t go under. This is probably already prevented by its bright color. There seems to be some range of colour: in #8 it is almost exactly the same as our Very Peri, but in #9 and 10 it is far more reddish.

    I really like the photos that also show the surroundings of the Satin-flower, as they show the great power with which this humble flower visually asserts itself.

    Everything becomes a metaphor these days, reminds me of David and Goliath. But I rather believe in the Satin-flower

    Liked by 1 person

    • Spring is a little earlier where you live too, I didn’t know that. Maybe milder winters overall with a few crazy, destructive storms are the trends now. Flowers that bloom at precarious times always steal our hearts, right?
      I’m glad you like #4, that’s a look that I like a lot, too. Of course, it involves squatting down, which I avoid. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But it’s worth it. And let’s thank the person who invented tilting screens for cameras!
      The warmer and cooler purples are mainly a function of the sky overhead – cloudy skies = bluer, cooler purples, sunlight = redder tints. And maybe the camera software plays a role, too. I wonder if it’s really that different to our eyes or if that’s the way the camera sees it. I could have changed the flower colors but decided not to, other than minor changes.
      It was hard to show that tiny flower in a bigger context. I didn’t realize how important the setting is to experiencing this flower until a few weeks ago when I was asking myself, “What is it that moves me so much about this flower?” The contrast between subject and setting has a bigger impact in person but I know you get the idea, your imagination works just fine! ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Camera software does play a role, sure, but I didn’t expect it to be that much. And as it was the same kind of flower and camera, it must have been the changing sky to vary the purple.
        And I’m completely with you: tilting screens make all the difference, especially when the photographer gets a bit older ๐Ÿ˜‰.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. REALLY enjoyed the music!

    I adore the photo in 13. of the Satin-Flower commanding a view of the Deception Pass bridge. You have such an amazing eye, and perspectiveโ€“and I love the sense of play of a flower staring off at a view. That is so clever. The eye of the flower is deep and taking it all in.

    The Broadleaf Stonecropโ€“Is that a type of succulent?

    As to the whole ephemeral nature of this flower, it reminds me of Morel mushrooms, which I hunt with my friends and parents sometimes in the Spring. They only appear for a few days, allegedly right after the lilacs have bloomed, and there has been rain recently, but not too recently ๐Ÿ˜€ It’s delicate then and a good, hearty adventure to look for them, hoping you’ve found just the right time for their popping out of the ground.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Holly, that’s great to hear. It was a challenging shot to frame because the flower is on a steep hill and is so small in relation to everything else. But that’s what is so enchanting about it, the contrast between the flower’s delicacy and the powerful atmosphere of the setting.
      Yes, the stonecrop is a succulent, with leaves all year long. Right now, they’re growing new rosettes of leaves and later on they send up a short stalk of bright yellow flowers – very cheerful. They love the many rocky, open places on the island.
      That’s a good comparison – morels – the last time I found any was many years ago, under apple trees at a small estate in upstate NY where I was a landscaper/gardener. I know they can be tricky to find, so here’s hoping you find a patch. Tieing anything to the time when lilacs bloom appeals to me…it’s another favorite flower. Thanks for your comment!

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  8. Then there are the non-botanical meanings of “grass widow” — the Cambridge Dictionary focuses on the one I (very vaguely) already knew: a woman not literally widowed through the death of her legal husband, but a woman often apart from her partner for extended periods of time, for e.g. through her work or his. What this has to do with that very beautiful wild flower… no idea.

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  9. This beautiful, little flower (seeming so fragile) and your music are full of solace in these terrible times. All your photos are great again, too. I love to see the little lady on the last but one photo in a dark environmanet in the sun. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree, both the music and the flower offer a lot of solace in very troubled times. I wonder where this is going to go. It’s very hard to watch the news these days. I like your characterization of the flower in the second-to-last photo as a little lady in a dark environment, in the sun. Really nice! Thank you, Petra!

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  10. Ahhh, yes! Satin Flower it is and such a lush purple… one that shines. I love the idea of ephemerals. These bits of spring popping up at a time when it seems that it never will get here. This sure is a beauty. And you do it proud!
    Down in our neck of the woods it looks like the Camas lily is blooming and has multiplied. It’s such a lovely and welcome sight. Another ephemeral? Oh, and yes… the violets are putting on their show. Those are transplants from two previous houses. The hard part is beating back the rampant ‘wilderness’ which threatens to choke out the natives.

    Both number 13s are lovely. I seem to be drawn the the broody fading light or fog scenes. Or is it a reflection of the state of the world we’re in?
    Wishing you a happy weekend…. ๐Ÿค—๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ฆ๐Ÿ™

    Liked by 1 person

    • It does shine – I wish that quality was a little more apparent in the photos. It’s beautiful to see. Yesterday I took a friend to see the many Satin-flowers in bloom right by the Deception Pass Bridge – they are still gorgeous but starting to fade. We were wondering what all the skinny leaves in the grass near the Satin-flowers were – then I saw a Camas bud. Mystery solved! So these grassy places will host Camas in a few weeks, which I didn’t know. I’ve seen them in other places but I haven’t been to this spot at the right time. How exciting that you have it multiplying! Congratulations, way to go!! And you have violets…ah, such sweet flowers. I’ve never seen a one on Fidalgo, it’s just not right for them here. It’s funny that the natives are battling the natives… ๐Ÿ˜‰
      About the brooding light – I’ve been drawn to that since moving up here so for me, maybe it’s just living in it. There are only a few months that are devoid of that atmosphere (midsummer). Otherwise, it’s very common to see lots of moody clouds here. I always make sure the exposure isn’t blown out when taking photos, which results in images that are often darker than they might have looked to the eye at the time. Definfilty true of the bridge photo but I like it that way, it conveys the atmopsphere. Thanks for your thoughts….happy weekend….

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  11. The introduction and photos of the grass-widow are so impressive, Lynn. Its ability to grow and thrive in such rugged, cold and undisturbed places makes the name ‘widow’ almost fitting – as it is out there alone. Makes me admire this wildflower, respect its perceived fragility but the perception is so wrong. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting take on the name “Grass widow.” Yes, it must be tough, considering the vagaries of March and late February weather. If you’re back here at the right time of year, who knows, maybe you can see them in person. Meanwhile, stay safe, don’t work too hard, and thanks for commenting. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  12. I love this phrase: when winter is on its last legs and spring is whispering in your ear.
    David Douglas reminded me of characters in Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things.” Have you read it?
    #1 and #4 are my fave photos – beautiful. I’ve not seen satin flowers here. Now I long to, but I am oh so aware of the crocuses and periwinkles.
    And me too – moved to tears by the goodness of people – those at the Polish border welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees with food and hot drinks and places to stay. Somehow the worst of humanity always seems to bring out the best.
    Alison

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    • I haven’t read that book but I’ve certainly heard of it. I’ll check it out. Looking at inaturalist, people have documented them all around Victoria, on Salt Spring Island, and on Valdes Island, but not anywhere closer to you. Crocuses are also in the Iris family – you can see the resemblance, right? I think I saw periwinkles in bloom from the car, in someone’s yard the other day – what a color, so pretty.
      It looks like the US is going to stop importing Russian oil so our gas prices will go up even more but it’s worth it. Hard choices. There’s a lot of goodness in the world; it helps to try and remember that when you look at what Putin’s doing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I really try to focus on the goodness. Us being light-hearted and happy and grateful does not mean we don’t care, and the opposite achieves nothing. Our gas prices have already gone up. It’s pure gouging because of the situation. Grrrrr.

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  13. Beautiful photos of a beautiful flower. And beautiful music by Satchmo!
    So sad we could live in a beautiful world but it’s enough a wrong mentality by someone (who anyway sits in a protected place) to bring pain and destructions. I feel so sorry for all the people who suffer for such an insane war not so far from where I live.

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    • It must really feel different to you than it does for Americans. I hope he stops before too long…his country needs to see him for what he is and get rid of him. Meanwhile, the destruction makes us angry, sad, and hopeless. We’re lucky we’re not Ukrainian citizens, fighting or worrying or running. We can enjoy beauty and freedom .

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  14. Beautiful images! Those first flowers of the year seem so meaningful and offer such renewal after the winter. Iโ€™m constantly amazed at how they just seem to know when to start growing. Sure itโ€™s science but, if you forget that for a moment, itโ€™s really just amazing.

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    • It’s true, the fact that these little purple gems bloom when it’s still so wintery makes them more special. Thanks for stopping by and thanks especially for sharing the wonder. A valuable thing! I hope all’s well with you.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks for sharing your research on the Satin-flower, Lynn. Agree, Grass Widow is an odd name, although Randall, above, may be on to something. A great idea to celebrate one flower and your photos really show your love for this little gem. ๐Ÿ’œ

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    • Yes, he had a good thought. There’s a meaning to the phrase but I don’t remember it – when I read about it, the name still didn’t make sense to me. I haven’t done a “Just One” post since 2020! I’ll do mare at some point. Thanks!

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