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Little blue flowers steal the show

2012 May 24

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

Once again I offer apology to Jock Lauterer for delaying my response to his request to identify that 1943 yellow pressed-flower specimen of his Great Aunt Myra Baldwin (The Carrboro Citizen, “A Thousand Words,” 5/3/12).

Skullcaps are almost hidden among other field plants. Photo by Ken Moore

Two blue-flowered beauties have taken center stage during my recent walkabouts.

Out at Mason Farm, enjoying butterflies and other pollinators visiting the hundreds and hundreds of penstemons, I was not prepared for “closer looks” to so completely divert my attention away from the sea of white flowers.

Perhaps most noticeable, as bright-yellow flowers can be, were the numerous sundrops, Oenothera fruiticosa, scattered throughout. Sundrops immediately came to mind when seeing Jock’s Great Aunt Myra’s pressed yellow flower, but that’s another story down the road.

Walking counterclockwise around the Big Oak Woods in the center of Mason Farm, you will encounter one here first, and another one there, along the ditch edge of the second open field to the right, a most beautiful blue wildflower.

On closer inspection, skullcap flowers become truly engaging. Photo by Ken Moore

Looking out into the open field you begin noticing quite a lot of these blue flowers, almost hidden in the taller grasses and sedges. There are many more this year, a sign that N.C. Botanical Garden staff are succeeding in managing those fields with fire and mowing to retrieve the floral diversity of former Piedmont prairies.

Scutellaria integrifolia, skullcap, was so named because early observers saw a resemblance in the flowers as well as the seed capsules to the dramatic helmets worn by ancient Roman soldiers. Though in the mint family (Lamiaceae), with square stems and opposite leaves, this little beauty is not fragrant.

Skullcaps are common along ditches and in wet fields and damp forests everywhere. You simply need to cast your eye occasionally on the ground during your walks to observe how special they are. In addition to their visual appeal, the medicinal properties recognized by the Native Americans are still valued.

A "closer look" reveals spiked lobelia's subtle beauty. Photo by Ken Moore

Another engaging plant, if you spy it, is the spiked lobelia, Lobelia spicata. This one really surprised me, and I’ve gone back several times to visit the group I almost stepped on along a path in the shady forest.

These delicately flowered plants, related to the brilliant, later-summer red cardinal flowers, Lobelia cardinalis, are frequently found established on green mossy hummocks along forest pathways. You will definitely have to get down on your knees to take in the beauty of spiked lobelias. It’s hard to imagine this plant is in the bellflower family (Campanulaceae).

Like the skullcaps, lobelias also have useful medicinal qualities, and you may notice lobelia while walking the herbal aisles of our local markets.

Though 1-2 feet tall, spiked lobelias go almost unseen along forest pathways. Photo by Ken Moore

While we continue to be blessed with cool, sunny days, take a closer look wherever you walk to find these two blue beauties.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora (

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