On Beyond Bluets

I have charted some very tiny plants so far, but I hadn’t yet charted the tiniest flowers. Yes, there is something smaller than bluets! Recently, I remedied the situation and charted two of Spring’s smallest.

The first is Corn Salad. That’s the common name for plants in the genus Valerianella.

Supposedly, the plants can be weeds of corn (grain) fields and are edible in salads, hence the common name. I’ve never put the edibility to the test, though. I imagine, as with most plants that have edible greens, they taste better before they flower.

Valerianella is related to the herb Valerian, the one that helps people sleep and which cats like so much. These plants used to be in their own family, the Valerianaceae, but molecular research has shown that they belong in the Caprifoliaceae with the honeysuckles. One of the distinguishing features of the Valerian group is a distinct odor of wet wool or “wet dog” in fresh plant material. I’ve even seen that character referenced in keys. Certainly makes you want to eat some doesn’t it?


Valerianella has a very distinctive growth habit. The leaves are opposite, (always in pairs), and the stem branches dichotomously–in two, again and again, even throughout the inflorescence at the top. The flowers are always minute. All the local ones are white, though elsewhere there may be bluish species.


When I was first studying botany, our class had keying (identification) quizzes every week. If we moaned about the flowers being too small, the next week our Teaching Assistant brought in something even smaller. We must have been cranky one week, because the next we had Valerianella. It takes a microscope to distinguish the five fused petals, the few stamens, and the three-lobed ovary with its one fertile and two sterile compartments. Identification to species requires looking at the tiny fruits end-on and determining whether the two sterile parts together are wider or narrower than the fertile part, and at what angle the parts diverge. And then one starts looking at hairs.


I drew one Valerianella plant, deciding that it was V. florifera, since that speices has slightly larger flowers. I didn’t do more than suggest the flowers because I knew that for this plant, charting the shapes of individual flowers was going to be impossible, even with the plant drawn twice life-size.

Here’s the chart, marked for place-keeping as I was putting it into the charting software:

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the graphed chart. It doesn’t really show the divided and divided again nature of the inflorescence. When it came time to input the flowers, I randomly placed some white to indicate them and filled in the spaces and bracts with shades of green, making sure to leave a green channel between the first two divisions of each flower cluster. I promise that the greens I’ve chosen are not as garish as the program makes them out to be!

The second plant is a mirror image of the first, in a different colorway, with the shapes of the leaves changed a bit and the internodes made shorter to give a smaller plant. This is a close-up of what a stitched sample would look like:

There’s more than a little artistic license here, but I think it “reads” as Valerianella. I showed the chart to a botanist friend who knows nothing of needlework or Gerda Bengtsson, and he was able to identify it as Valerianella.

I keep looking at this. It’s very stylized, with the branches and leaves spread wider than they would be on a live plant, so as to show the characteristic shape of the plant. If you look back up at the top, it’s the same artistic liberty that was used in the botanical illustration. Sometimes a drawing–or a design–needs to be a little inaccurate to portray something accurately. I may fiddle with this one more before finalizing the chart, or I may leave it. What do you think?