Today in the garden my heart leapt at a lovely sight: this year’s first flower.
It was a Speedwell, specifically Veronica persica, known by many names including Persian Speedwell, Common Field Speedwell, Winter Speedwell, and my favorite, Birdeye Speedwell.
The flower had four petals. The outer 2/3 of each was sky blue, with violet stripes that converged into a scalloped ring around a white center. It did indeed resemble an eye, but with an iris white instead of black.
The blossom was only about the size of a small shirt button or a jean rivet. The entire plant would barely have filled my cupped palm. Though diminutive, it jumped out at my attention anyway. I dropped what I was doing to grab my camera.
The timing of this new flower is just a few days after the lunar new year commonly referred to as the “Chinese New Year,” which took place with the new moon on January 25th this year.
The timing is also just a couple days before Imbolc, a European pagan holiday that marks a solar event: the approximate halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.
Happening between these two astronomical/astrological signifiers, this flowering of Birdeye Speedwell is itself a signifier; in this case, of local cycles of plant growth.
As a former farmer and a current gardener, seeing this flower was like hearing a bell being rung to mark an hour. I presume that day length and temperatures have reached a certain point and that now it’s time to seed cold-hardy spring vegetables like Spinach, Arugula and Radishes.
I had already noticed other plants waking up. In the low spots grasses have been greening. The Elderberry tree is unfurling its leaves like hundreds of tiny flags. The lacy rosettes made by the wild Mustards are showing their first signs of bolting and blooming. But Birdeye Speedwell made the first flower.
Veronica persica is a typical late winter/early spring annual: quick-growing, fast to flower and soon to pass. In botany, this brief seasonal life cycle is described as “ephemeral” (in one of the few instances when that science’s clinical jargon rings poetic).
Ephemeral annuals generally take advantage of a region’s wettest period to grow and reproduce. Their seeds are able to lie dormant in dry conditions for multiple seasons, waiting for the next good opportunity.
Many ephemerals, like Birdeye Speedwell, are what are called “pioneer species,” which are plants who thrive in disturbed areas. Of course a garden—where I saw this flower—is an area that’s being constantly disturbed.
Most “weeds” in agricultural settings are pioneer plants. They tend to disappear in a few years if an area is left totally untouched, due to ecological succession. That is, as nature reclaims an area from a disturbance—such as a flood, a landslide, or human civilization—first some types of plants and then others take over in stages. The pioneers hold the ground in place at first, attract pollinators and grazers, and in some cases—like Lupine, Vetch or Locoweed, all of which fix nitrogen in the soil from the air—enrich the environment. Over time, depending on the biome, pioneers lose their place entirely as perennials move in.
Like many of the other pioneer plants that followed European colonial settlers around the world, Birdeye Speedwell is edible and has been used medicinally. It contains many vitamins and minerals but has been consumed sparingly due to its bitter flavor. I didn’t taste this specimen because it was so small, but I’ll keep my eye out for a bigger one that’s big enough to sample.
Veronica is a genus of at least 450 species, of which about 10% are annuals like our friend. Annuals go from sprout to seed production in less than one calendar year, often far less. According to scientists, flowering plants are perennial by default, and the annual habit is an evolutionary adaptation that arises from periods of stress, particularly drier conditions.
In one paper, researchers studying the Veronica genus “inferred higher temperature, higher temperature variation and lower precipitation to be the characteristic environmental conditions for annuals in comparison with perennials. This is consistent with previous suggestions that inferred drought, heat or unpredictable environment are responsible for the evolution of annual life history.”
In the case of Veronica, the adaptation from perennial to annual has occurred on multiple occasions during evolutionary history, including during a fascinating event known as the “Messinian salinity crisis.” About 5.96 million years ago, the Straits of Gibraltar closed, cutting off the flow from the Atlantic, and over a period of only 1000 years, the Mediterranean Sea dried out nearly completely. What little water left was trapped in extremely salty bodies, like the Dead Sea in Palestine. Then, about 630,000 years later, the Straits opened up again and the basin was reflooded. Veronica‘s ancestral home is the Balkan Peninsula in the Mediterranean area, so it was directly affected by these cataclysmic events.
We are ourselves living in an era of increasingly severe events and Birdeye Speedwell is more likely to survive than, say, Joshua Trees, which are predicted to disappear from Joshua Tree National Park by 2100 due to the increasing heat and decreasing moisture expected in that area from climate change. (Though such predictions have proven too optimistic so far. See: “Climate Change: Why is it so often ‘sooner than predicted’?“)
In plant terms, we humans are perennials, longer-lived and less quickly adaptable. For that reason, I recommend that we tune into the ephemerals like Veronica persica, and glean what insights we can. Given history, they are much more likely to live through tumult than we are. After all, they already have. A whole sea drying up and filling back in is a big deal.
Not that human survival will even be possible once planetary conditions reach certain thresholds, which they will sooner or later, one way or another. But it would be good for us—as the lost, confused beings we collectively are—to witness and reflect on the vibrant energy of ephemerals, if only to remind our jaded selves that this is how our planet’s life persists through change: with beauty and enthusiasm.