Faroese Wildflowers

Saxifraga species (Saxafragaceae)

As I’ve mentioned a few times, identifying the wildflowers I found in the Faroe Islands has been frustrating. Impossible in some cases. The fundamental problem is that I didn’t do proper botanizing there in the field. Also I didn’t take the time to get good, clear, detailed photos. In many cases getting plants identified to the genus level was easy, especially after researching Icelandic flora the year before, but to the species level? Not so much.

Thymus praecox (creeping thyme, Lamiaceae), with a Veronica species (possibly V. officinalis) and a Galium species (G. saxitile?)

There are more than 400 species of flowering plants on the various islands; I saw maybe three dozen of them. Some of the species, or at least their cousins, are also found in Iceland. But there were some new-to me finds as well.

Armeria maritima (sea thrift, Plumbaginaceae)




In the Faroes land is considered to be either “infield” or “outfield”, these being, respectively, the fenced-in areas around villages and the land further away where sheep range free. Wildflowers in the outfields tend to be very small, often hidden in rocky places that are protected from browse. The larger flowering plants I saw were in areas inaccessible to sheep (and humans), for example sea thrift on rocky outcrops with no other vegetation nearby.

Mimulus guttatus (yellow monkeyflower, Phrymaceae), an introduced species,  growing along a creek in Gjógv

In the infields it was hard to tell sometimes between wildflower and garden escapee. Maybe the difference isn’t important, as about one quarter of the flowering plant species are introduced.

Potentilla erecta (erect cinquefoil, Rosaceae)





The largest variety was in a fenced-in park that had a reforestation effort going. The damp heathland around the planted trees contained maybe a third of all the species that I found.

Cardamine praetensis (cuckooflower, Brassicaceae)

The tally of my finds, by family:
Asteraceae 3
Brassicaceae 1
Caryophyllaceae 3
Geraniaceae 1
Lamiaceae 2
Lentibulariaceae 1
Orchidaceae 1
Orobanchaceae 1
Phrymaceae 1
Plantaginaceae 1
Plumbaginaceae 1
Polygalaceae 2
Polygonaceae 2
Ranunculaceae 1
Rosaceae 2
Rubiaceae 1
Salicaceae 1
Saxifragaceae 2
Violaceae 1


I made a promise to myself at the start of this wildflower season to make no assumptions about plant identification, and to question everything, even the things I was sure of.

That’s what got me to the iris odyssey, not to mention the fleabanes, and meadow rues, and white violets.

It’s been an education, if frustrating. My latest challenge has been to identify this pretty pink thing.

I knew right away that it was in the Polygonaceae – the jointed stem gives it away – and was reasonably sure it’s a Persicaria species. But which one?

Unable to tell just from pictures, I printed a few pages from both the Weakley Flora and eFloras and hit the trail, intending to key it out in situ. It keyed out to Persicaria densiflora.

However, some authorities do not currently recognize P. densiflora as a species; they lump it with P. glabra.

I’m not sure at this point that I can recreate the process that led me to identify this as Persicaria coccinea; it involved lengthy internet forum conversations and some research.

A few things to consider…

from “The case for recognizing both Persicaria amphibia and Persicaria coccinea in North America” on iNaturalist.org:

…discussions of Persicaria are complicated by two and a half centuries of back and forth generic lumping and splitting…there now exist an inordinate number of synonyms for every species, sometimes numbering in the hundreds.

It’s also worth noting that every single characteristic matches the description of scarlet smartweed (aka P. coccinea) on Illinois Wildflowers.

Of course, it would appear that just like P. densiflora, P. coccinea is no longer an accepted name; ITIS lists it as a synonym of P. amphibia.

So the flower pictured here could be Persicaria glabra (smooth smartweed), but is more likely Persicaria amphibia (water smartweed)… until botanists and taxonomists recognize the validity of Persicaria coccinea.

I’m calling it a DPP.

Drawing the Line

With permission granted to collect just a few more samples, I went back to the iris sites and got two capsules. Each one appeared to be ripe. Took them home, opened them up, photographed them…

And damn if I still haven’t reached a conclusion.

According to the Flora of North America, Iris virginica has

Seeds in 2 rows per locule, pale brown, usually D-shaped, 5–8 mm, pitted, corky. 2n = 70, 72.

while Iris versicolor has

Seeds dark brown, D-shaped, 5–8 mm, shiny, thin, hard, regularly pebbled, not corky. 2n = 108.

How would you describe these seeds?

Once again I sought expert advice, this time from the Species Iris Group of North America and an iris-specific internet forum. One kind gentleman wrote to me:

Elizabeth Miller, please see the paper attached below. Iris virginica is 2N = 70 Iris versicolor is 2N = 108, it is an allopolyploid stable hybrid of Iris virginica and Iris setosa (2N = 38) which occurred post glaciation after the Laurentide Ice Sheet shifted a population (dramatically) from Western North America all the way across to the East, into the range of Iris virginica. Since you have a permit for collection, you may wish to contact your nearest university with a Hort program and see if they can do an analysis. In general from a phenotypic perspective Iris versicolor has short standards, which it inherits from Iris setosa, which has bristle like almost invisible standards. But Iris virginica phenotypes are variable and some occasionally have a shorter or rounder standard. So it is best, and most accurate, to go with a chromosome analysis:

[Parental Origin and Genome Evolution in the Allopolyploid Iris versicolor]

I was also pointed to the classic article “The Problem of Species in the Northern Blue Flags, Iris versicolor L. and Iris virginica L.”, by Edgar Anderson, originally published in Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden [Vol. 15, #3, Sept. 1928].

The article was fascinating, and I’ve been struggling to come up with a way to briefly summarize it while doing justice to the detail. If you’re interested in such things, it’s worth getting a (free) jstor account.

After introductory remarks and descriptions of the species, the author presents a chart of “Comparative Morphology”, followed by some interesting observations:

Wherever either species was studied, the individual plants which went to make up a colony were found to vary strikingly among themselves. They varied in every conceivable characteristic, both vegetative and floral… The flowers varied in size and form, in color and color pattern, in number and arrangement, in texture…

…It is thus apparent at the outset that no biometric method of distinguishing the two species can be a simple matter.

That made me feel better about my own failed attempts. It also made me wonder if I wasn’t right in thinking that the lumpers should have won this round. But earlier in the paper, Anderson writes

It has been found that what commonly passes for Iris versicolor L. is made up of two species… the species are wholly distinct and crosses between them are partially sterile.

So I kept reading, only to discover that after detailed analysis of numerous specimens, Anderson discards mathematical models and comes up with a fascinating method of comparing specimens by creating ideographs based on groups of characteristics. After comparing ideographs, Anderson concludes

In marked contrast to the variation between individuals is the general resemblance between colonies of the same species.


Above all, when the ideographs are considered as a whole, the two species remain completely and absolutely distinct. In spite of a wide range of variation in separate characteristics, when the combination as a whole is studied it is found to be strikingly constant. Iris versicolor remains always and unmistakably Iris versicolor, and Iris virginica remains always and unmistakably Iris virginica. There is not the slightest tendency to one species to merge into the other.

So where does all this leave me? I can’t create the ideographs without access to a large number of specimens – quite possibly more than either stand of irises affords. Which leaves chromosome analysis.

And that’s where I draw the line. Even though a botanist friend has promised use of her microscope so I can do it the “old-school way”, should I be able to collect samples of root tissue.

Open for Business

Today “Elizabeth’s Wildflower Blog” is really “Elizabeth’s Native Plant Blog”, because although Chelone glabra is common and found almost everywhere in Maryland, I’ve never seen it in the wild. These photos are of a specimen in my garden.

Also known as white turtlehead, this plant is in the Plantaginaceae, or plantain family. Older sources and many on-line sources place it in the Scrophulariaceae, but that family was gutted by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group.

The plants stand two to three feet tall, often with a single central stem but sometimes with a branch or two. As you can see, pruning (by rabbits, darn them) seems to encourage branching. The flowers are borne on terminal spikes, and have two petals, the upper one forming a hood over the lower one, which sometimes has two or three faint lobes.

White turtlehead like wet soils in open woodlands, and ranges east of the Mississippi River from the upper South northwards into Canada; west of the Mississippi it’s found in parts of Missouri and Minnesota. It’s listed as exploitably vulnerable in New York.

Not only have I never seen this plant in the wild, I’ve also never seen a Baltimore checkerspot. I had hoped to, because white turtlehead is their host plant. Fortunately turtlehead also attracts bumblebees. They crawl all the way up into the flower and stay for a minute or more. You can’t even tell there’s a bee in a flower except for the shaking that happens as the bee does its thing.

Rayless Beauty

Another of the fantastically showy summer-blooming wildflowers is New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), a perennial that can grow to six feet tall given the right conditions: moist to wet soils and full sun.

[right: in my garden; below: on a bedrock terrace in the Potomac]
I find them growing along the banks of the Potomac River in the area downstream of Carderock. The species ranges from southern New England south into the mid-Atlantic and upper South, with a few populations a little into the mid-West, and a single county in northern New Mexico. There are records for it in every Maryland county.

I’m drawn to this plant by the structure of the flowers. Despite being in the Asteraceae, the inflorescence has only disk flowers. If you look closely at a new head you’ll see them tightly bunched up, still unopened, surrounded by phyllaries (bracts at the base of the head).


In a head with open flowers, you can see the five petals fused into a tube, with a pair of curlique anthers on the stamen popping out. I’m not really sure if that’s a pair of anthers or a single split anther, actually. [edit: oops! that’s a stigma]



New York ironweed is great for attracting pollinators. I’ve seen several different species of butterflies and skippers on the one in my garden, as well as a variety of bees. Look closely at the top photo: there are at least eight skippers there.