“Be careful what you say in a corn-field. There are plenty of ears.”
--a standard Americanism.
Don’t worry! Our mystery plant can’t hear anything, but it has eyes, and it can see you!
“Eyes” in this botanical sense, don’t have anything to do with potatoes. It turns out that in a number of different plant species, distinctive patterns of coloration are often formed at the center of the flower, often forming a prominent spot, or what we call an “eye.” This is often the result of slightly different pigmentation of cells of the inner, or basal, portions of the petals, or sometimes the result of differently-shaped cells on the epidermis, or “skin” of the petals. Or, maybe, a combination of both.
The “eye” that is thus formed is probably useful in pollination, as a sort of target image available for whatever visually-oriented pollinators might be flying around in the neighborhood. Interestingly, many different species, in a number of unrelated families, rely on this differential petal color for attracting their pollinators, and thus insuring seed production.
Our tiny little plant is an annual herb, regularly coming up from seed, early in the spring, and only lasting a few weeks, before producing its own tiny seeds, and then disappearing for the summer. It is a member of an enormous family of plants, named the Rubiaceae, which is mostly centered in the tropics, and which provides us with a number of economically important species, like coffee (is there a more important plant??) and a variety of highly popular ornamentals, including the fragrant gardenia.
This modest mystery plant is only about 3 inches tall when fully grown. Its scientific name means “tiny” or “weak,” again a reference to its small, inconspicuous nature. Its tiny leaves are egg-shaped, green and paired along the stem. Each stem is terminated by a single bloom. It is common in open fields and meadows, and if present in sufficient numbers, will afford a sort of purplish glow to the sidewalk or roadside edge.
This is truly a “Rodney Dangerfield” sort of plant: never getting respect. To see it close up means getting on your hands and knees, and with a hand-lens. But what a view of provides! The open flower consists of a brightly conspicuous corolla, usually pink or purple, with a tube surmounted by 4 pointed lobes.
The “eye” at the center of the corolla is most often red. Within the corolla will be four miniscule stamens, producing plenty of bright yellow grains of pollen. A week or so after blooming, the flower produces a greenish capsule, which contains a number of tiny seeds. The capsule will quickly split open, releasing the seeds, and before long, the whole plant will dry up and disappear. Gone!
It’s an American native, and you can see our blooming little friend up and down the east coast, from Virginia to Nebraska and Missouri, and south through Texas and Florida. It’s an early bloomer, too, so be looking for it now.
[Answer: "Small bluets," Houstonia pusilla]
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email email@example.com.