Birdbill Dayflower — August 2011

dayflower flower

Imagine the deepest blue New Mexico sky you have ever seen to approximate the vibrant color of birdbill dayflower blossoms. Popping up only in the shady, moist rocky areas of piñon-juniper woodlands this is not a common plant on the Preserve, but where it does occur it provides a truly special sight. Commelina dianthifolia is also known by the common names Western dayflower and dayflower. The genus Commelina is characterized by flowers with three petals, the two lateral ones are equal in size and the lower one is somewhat smaller. Linneaus named the genus in honor of two Dutch botanists, Johan (sometimes Jan) Commelijn (1629–1692) and Caspar Commelijn (1667-1731). Johan founded the Amsterdam botanical garden Hortus Medicus and his nephew Caspar later became director of the botanic garden, continuing and expanding his uncle’s work. Caspar’s son died young, and some believe Linneaus chose this particular genus to honor the Commelijn family with the idea that the two lateral petals symbolize major botanical contributions and the smaller petal represents unrealized potential. The species epithet means having leaves like the genus Dianthus (Greek for flower of the Gods) based on the Latin word for leaf, folium.

dayflower plant

Birdbill dayflower is a perennial herbaceous plant that grows from a tuberous root that is reported to be edible. The smooth, jointed stem produces few branches resulting in an open, droopy, partly erect plant up to 20 inches tall. Long, narrow, grass-like leaves arise along the stem in an alternate pattern. Each leaf has a base that wraps around the stem, parallel veins, and may grow to a length of six inches.

Small clusters of flower buds are enclosed in a specialized folded leaf with a long tapered point resembling a boat (or bird beak) called the spathe. A single spathe develops at the end of each stalk with flowers typically emerging in August and September. A single flower (sometimes two) will open on a stalk emerging from the spathe in the early morning and then wilt by midday (hence dayflower). Flowers have three unequal green sepals and three unequal blue petals forming a delicate blossom up to one inch across. There are six stamens, three of which are longer and fertile with the other three being shorter and sterile. The ovary is located in the spathe and will develop into a dry capsule containing five irregularly ridged and pitted seeds.

dayflower flower& spathe

Dayflower is a member of the spiderwort family, Commelinaceae, a family characterized by lily-like flowers with small sepals and mucilaginous stems. Several species in this family, including some in the genus Commelina, are common houseplants called “wandering Jew.” Navajos are known to have given an infusion of birdbill dayflower to livestock as an aphrodisiac whereas Keres people prepared an infusion to help strengthen tuberculosis patients. For Deer Canyon residents the birdbill dayflower occasionally provides a surprising and delightful reward for those who explore some of the different microhabitats on the Preserve.

© 2011 Jerry Melaragno

Printable copy here.

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