Our beloved bluebonnets may be gone for the year, but a new blue is gracing Texas roadsides. These masses of native wildflowers, known collectively as dayflowers, are ephemeral; each plant produces successive blooms, but individual flowers last only one day, opening in the morning and closing by afternoon.
The dayflowers (Commelina erecta) spreading through Brazoria County just now are one of three native species found here. Sometimes known as ‘erect dayflowers’ because of their growth habits, they also go by the common name ‘whitemouth dayflower.’ The name refers to the white third petal; because of its color, as well as its smaller size and placement, it suggests the appearance of a small white mouth.
Another common name, ‘widow’s tears,’ resulted from the discovery that the purse-like spathe surrounding the buds is filled with liquid. If squeezed, a ‘tear drop’ of liquid will emerge.
Initially, a fourth common name made no sense to me when I found it described as “herb of the (cooked) chicken.” In fact, the Spanish name for the plant is Hierba del pollo, and its flowers, leaves, and shoots are edible. In some areas of the world, the flowers are grown as a leafy vegetable crop: an interesting addition to any stewpot.
Colorful as the common names for the plant can be, its scientific name is especially interesting. In John and Gloria Tveten’s Wildflowers of Houston & Southeast Texas, they note:
Swedish botanist Linnaeus…named this genus for three Dutch botanists, the Commelin (or Commelijn) brothers. Two of the brothers, Jan and Kaspar, published widely in their field; the third died before becoming well known. Linnaeus thought the unequal petals of the dayflower nicely represented the talents of the three brothers.
Most sites describe Commelina erecta as having two large blue petals and a smaller white petal, with long, curved stamens and bright yellow pistils. Still, as many have noted, this is a highly variable species. As I browsed the dayflower-covered roadside, I found one with pretty blue stamens: something I’d never noticed.
And, as a special treat, I discovered one nearly pure white flower, with the barest hint of blue in its larger petals. As the saying goes, “Vive la différence.”