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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!