Untamed Lowcountry

Blue-eyed grass? Delicate beauty of this wildflower a welcome sight in SC Lowcountry

Blue-eyed grass found on Hilton Head Island.
Blue-eyed grass found on Hilton Head Island.

For many naturalists and field biologists, it was one particular bird, butterfly, plant, or other organism that revealed a different way of seeing the world and led to a lifelong interest in nature.

In my case, it was a tiny wildflower in a Long Island field, decades ago. I nearly walked right past it.

Dwarfed by high meadow grasses, the plant resembled a tuft of grass itself, but it stood no more than six inches tall and bore masses of sky-blue flowers shaped like little stars with yellow centers.

Later I identified it as blue-eyed grass — a name as entrancing as the plant itself.

There are some 200 species of blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium spp.), all native to the Western hemisphere.

They’re not grasses at all, but members of the iris family, along with such showy relatives as gladioli, crocuses, and of course, irises. The sepals in a blue-eyed grass flower aren’t green and leaf-like, as in many other plants, but instead resemble the colorful petals they surround.

So a blue-eyed grass flower looks like a six-pointed star composed of similar floral parts, which botanists call “tepals.” Most species have flowers in various shades of blue, purple, or violet with a contrasting “eye” in the center, but a few have blooms that are white or yellow.

And although the flowers don’t emit a noticeable fragrance, they do produce nectar and pollen that attract pollinating bees and flies. Later, the plant bears capsule-like fruits containing small black seeds.

The various species of blue-eyed grass are typically low-growing, annual or perennial plants found in meadows, grasslands, and damp woods. Some invade lawns, where their mat-like growth and tough, grass-like leaves help them blend in with grasses, as well as resist mowing and trampling.

A common species in the eastern U.S. is S. angustifolium, which is also the source of a deer-resistant cultivar sometimes planted in wildflower and rock gardens.

Although blue-eyed grass has colonized our Hilton Head Island yard and the edges of our vegetable plot, I’m glad to see it again after so many years, and I never fail to appreciate its delicate beauty.