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FLORA: Died and gone to heaven

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

It was the first weekend in April last year that I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when chancing upon carpets of the tiny little red-eyed, purple-petaled bluets carpeting the sacred ground of the Sparrow Cemetery out on Mt. Carmel Church Road.

Not to be confused with the common bluet, also called Quaker Ladies, Houstonia caerulea, this red-eyed little gem of a flower is called the tiny bluet, Houstonia pusilla.

I made a mental note to return this year to see the hundreds upon hundreds of tiny bluets spreading across that quiet, revered landscape. Two weeks ago I checked to see if they had begun to appear.

Since everything seems to be several weeks ahead this spring, I was not surprised to find them already cheerfully in flower. They were not, however, at peak, so you can still see them.

The red-eyed tiny bluet is a gem of a flower. Photo by Ken Moore

If you explore the higher ground of the cemetery you will discover that you must step carefully to avoid crushing them.

If the sunlight is angled just perfectly, you may see them as pale-purple carpets across the open grassy surface. The flowers are so small (1/8-inch across) that you’ll have to drop to your knees to get a closer look at the intense blood-red eye.

Tiny bluets are annuals that move around the landscape, seeking openings in yards in early spring before the grasses grow tall enough to shade them.

Most folks are familiar with the pale-blue bluet, the Quaker Ladies, also called the common bluet, which is two to three times larger than its tiny cousin. The common bluet is distinguished by its yellow eye. It is a perennial and is most frequently spied along bare woodland trails and scattered on mossy banks. If you maintain a moss garden by keeping fallen leaves raked away during fall and winter, you most likely have the pale-blue, almost white Quaker Ladies happily holding court on your moss carpet right now. They return year after year on mossy grounds.

Yellow-eyed common bluets prefer mossy beds. Photo by Ken Moore

I don’t recall seeing these two different bluets growing together, and I’m wondering if they may have different soil preferences. The mossy carpets holding Quaker Ladies occur on naturally acidic ground, while the tiny bluets appear more commonly with grasses in yards that are not very acidic. I’ll have to keep thinking about that.

Another good spot to find tiny bluets is along the old farm road bisecting the second set of fields at Mason Farm Biological Reserve. A little farther along you’ll find Quaker Ladies, by themselves, scattered along shady edges.

While you’re out practicing close-to-the-ground “belly botany,” keep an eye out for the little wild field pansy, Viola bicolor, that varies in color from white to purple, with dark stripes and a yellow center. Sometimes they are numerous enough to appear as carpets of color on the ground, and lying on such a carpet is another died-and-gone-to-heaven kind of experience.

Email Ken Moore at flora@carrborocitizen.com. Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

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