Olsynium douglasii
(grass-widow, purpled-eyed grass, satin flower)

Grass-widows are one of the earliest wildflowers to emerge each year, blooming as early as mid-winter in Western Washington and late winter and earliest spring in Central Washington, often before most other plants have appeared. This precocious trait may have earned them their unusual common name, as a “grass widow” or “grass widower” is someone whose significant other is absent for an extended period.

Grass-widows are most common on the shrub-steppe of Central Washington, where they grow in the open sagelands. Their blooms endure relentless winds and ground-freezing temperatures undaunted, after which the plants die back to their underground rhizomes to wait out the searing summer drought that naturally follows. In Western Washington, look for them near rocky balds and oak savannas on the sea islands and other areas where the rainshadow of the Olympic Mountains and Vancouver Island creates similarly dry summer habitat.

Grass-widows’ crocus-like blooms and tough, grassy leaves and bracts1Bracts are leaves that occur within or just below a flower cluster and often differ in size, form, and sometimes color from ordinary leaves. give them away as members of the Iris family. Blooms are typically a rosy lavender, but can vary from deep purple to pure white or occasionally striped. Although they flower from the tips of their stems, the last bract on a stem always extends well beyond the buds, giving the appearance of mid-stem bloom. They range from British Columbia south to California and east into Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Nevada. Their sole North American species consists of two varieties, var. douglasii, found west of the Cascades, and var. inflatum, common east of the Cascades. Var. inflatum is distinguished by the bulbous swelling where its stamen filaments join, by the elongated points on its tepals2Tepals are undistinguished petals and sepals. (Sepals are modified leaves that enclose a flower bud and are usually green, but in some species have adopted the form of petals, in which case they and the petals are called “tepals.”), by its flatter and more open flower form, and by its paler rose to lavender hues. Conversely, var. douglasii it noted for its more rounded tepals, more bell-shaped floral form, and deeper reddish purple bloom color.

Typical Central Washington habitat:

© 2023 Anthony Colburn. Images may not be used or reproduced in any form without express written consent.


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