What’s That Scrophy-Looking Thing?

Bartsia alpina
Icelandic: smjörgras


In the second picture of my previous post, you can see some dark purple plant material surrounding the cuckoo flowers. Those are the upper leaves and flowers of this very common plant, but the flowers are hard to make out at first, since the leaves become increasingly purple as they ascend the stem. You might be able to see that if you click on these two pictures to get larger images.


Velvetbells grows in a wide variety of habitats and so is found almost everywhere in Iceland. The plant stands from 6-12″ tall, blooms in June and July, and is incredibly easy to identify, because nothing else looks like it. Indeed, Bartsia is a monotypic genus, so there’s nothing similar in the Maryland Piedmont to compare it to. It’s also found in much of eastern Canada as well as Greenland, but nowhere in the US.


Bartsia was formerly classified in the figwort family, Scrophulariaceae (hence the pun in the post title), a large family made much smaller by the work of taxonomists. You have to look in the broomrape family, Orobanchaceae, to find anything similar to velvetbells in the Maryland Piedmont. You can see the family resemblance in the flowers of beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) and squawroot (Conopholis americana) if you look closely. I think they all look like the gaping maws of miniature monsters.

Because I am fascinated by words and etymology and the whole concept of names, I tried to investigate the Icelandic common name, but didn’t come up with much. “Smjör” means “butter”, and “gras” means “grass”. But are those the roots of the common name or is that coincidental? Google translate offers “amethyst” as a translation of “smjörgras”, but reversing the search tells me that the Icelandic word for “amethyst” is “ametyst”. Amethyst is a nice description (the upper leaves and flowers are a lovely deep purple)  but I have no idea if the plant tastes like butter.


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