Blue grass lily
Dotted throughout rocky areas in habitats surrounding the western part of Mediterranean Sea there are many plants adapted to life where water is infrequent, sunlight is abundant, and summers are hot. One such plant is a clumped, rush-like species, that produces its delicate, scentless, blue-violet flowers in late spring and early summer. This is the blue grass lily, which shows numerous adaptations to surviving in arid habitats.
Aphyllanthes monspeliensis is distributed through south-west Europe to Italy, and into Morocco. This perennial herb reaches about 50 centimetres in height. Its wiry, blue-green photosynthetic aerial stems are covered with a thick, waxy cuticle that reduces water loss. The plant’s leaves are not photosynthetic, they are merely papery scales at the base of these stems. The stems themselves are flowerhead stalks, the bulk of the plant is found underground as a mass of tangled, horizontal, root-like underground stems. At the top of each drumstick-like, aerial stem is a head, of one to two flowers, surrounded by papery scales. The small, lily-like flowers are probably pollinated by bees. The beaked, three-seeded fruits are capsules that split open when they are mature. The thick-coated seeds show no special adaptations for dispersal.
The plant was introduced into the botanical literature by the Flemish botanist Mathias de Lobel and French physician Pierre Pena in their Stirpium Adversaria Nova (1571); it was called ‘Aphyllanthos monspelliensium’. ‘Aphyllanthos’ means leafless flowers. Lobel and Pena’s work describes about 1,300 plants found around the city of Montpellier, hence the name ‘monspelliensium’. The modern scientific name, introduced by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, is a standardisation of its sixteenth-century name.
Despite its early introduction into the literature of European botany, the introduction of the living Aphyllanthes monspeliensis plants into British cultivation apparently happened as late as 1791. However, Bobart the Younger, the second Keeper of the Oxford Botanic Garden, has specimens in his herbarium, which appear to have been obtained from the Padua botanic garden in the late-seventeenth century. Today, Aphyllanthes is sometimes grown as a horticultural novelty in rock gardens, or as an alpine.
The unusual appearance of the blue grass lily, together with the detailed structure of its flowers, has meant that for hundreds of years, Aphyllanthes, which contains only a single species, has been the subject of academic argument about its close relatives. The current opinion, based on DNA characteristics, places Aphyllanthes in its own subfamily within the asparagus family.
Conran JG 1998. Aphyllanthaceae. In Kubitzki K The families and genera of vascular plants. Volume 3. Springer, pp. 122-124.
Graham SW et al. 2006. Robust inference of monocot deep phylogeny using an expanded multigene plastid data set. Aliso 22: article 2.
Tomlinson PB 1965. Notes on the anatomy of Aphyllanthes (Liliaceae) and comparison with Eriocaulaceae. Journal of the Linnean Society (Botany) 59: 163-173.