In praise of the colour violet



Glass art, Baltic Sea Glass, Melsted, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Purple bands on eroded gullies, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Ice-covered creek in evening light, Mill Neck Creek, Long Island, New York State. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The name of the colour violet stems from the colour of the flowers of a member of the genus Viola, called violets, presumably the sweet violet (Viola odorata), which has been a popular garden plant for hundreds of years due to its fragrant flowers.

Today, this plant is cultivated in temperate areas around the world. In the wild, it is found from central Europe and the Mediterranean eastwards to Kazakhstan and Iran. Its flower colour is usually bluish-violet, but a form with white flowers is also common.

The genus Viola contains no less than 550-600 species, and members are found almost worldwide, with the highest diversity in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The flowers have 5 very unequal petals, the lower one larger and spurred. The fruit is a capsule, splitting along 3 seams.

Flowers of most wild violets are various shades of violet or blue, but white and yellow flowers are also common (see pages In praise of the colour blue and In praise of the colour yellow). Many species are popular garden plants, often called pansies. This name is explained on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry.



Cultivated sweet violet, Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The marsh blue violet (Viola cucullata) is distributed in eastern North America, from Newfoundland westwards to Ontario and North Dacota, southwards to Louisiana and Georgia. It is partial to wetlands, preferably growing in swamps.

The specific name is derived from the Latin cucullus (‘hood’) and the suffix atus (‘having a beard’), presumably alluding to the white tuft of hairs in the mouth of the flower.



Marsh blue violet, growing next to cinnamon ferns (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum), Shu Swamp, Long Island, New York. In the background leaves of eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). This species is presented on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The spurred violet (Viola calcarata) is to 10 cm tall, stem smooth, with leaves on the lower part. Flowers are terminal, solitary, to 4 cm across, colour variable, violet, blue, yellow, or white, but always with a dark yellow spot near the throat, usually with violet veins. The lower petal has a spur, to 1.5 cm long, often pointing upwards.

This plant is found in the Alps, from France eastwards to Slovenia, and also on the Balkan Peninsula, southwards to Macedonia. It grows in grassy areas at altitudes between 1,500 and 2,800 m.

The specific name is Latin, meaning ‘having a spur’, alluding to the long spur of this species.



Spurred violet with raindrops, Cabane de Prarochet, Col du Sanetsch, Valais, Switzerland. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Saffron is a spice made from the crimson styles of the flower of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). They contain a pigment, crocin, which adds a golden-yellow colour to textiles and dishes, especially rice. This dye has been used for thousands of years. There is much work involved in picking the styles off the flowers, and, at a price exceeding 5,000 US$ per kg, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice.

The native area of the plant is disputed, but Mesopotamia, Iran, and Greece have been suggested as possible places of origin. Cultivation of the saffron crocus slowly spread throughout much of Eurasia, and later the plant was brought to North Africa, North America, and Oceania.

The word saffron probably derives from Arabic zafaran, which stems from Persian zarparan, meaning ‘gold strung’, alluding to either the golden stamens of the flower, or to the golden dye extracted from the styles.



Cultivated saffron crocuses, Pampur, Kashmir, India. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Harvested saffron crocuses, Pampur. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




In the wild, chives (Allium schoenoprasum) has a very wide distribution, found in all of Europe, the Middle East eastwards to the western Himalaya, and in all temperate areas of Asia, including Korea and Japan, and in Alaska, Canada, and northern parts of the United States. Elsewhere, it is widely cultivated as a vegetable and spice.



Chives, Col du Mt. Cenis, France. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




As opposed to most other Asian onion species, Allium wallichii thrives in humid areas, distributed from Pakistan eastwards to south-western China, at altitudes between 2,300 and 4,800 m. It is easily identified by its large umbel, to 7 cm across, with red or purple (rarely white) flowers. The flat, keeled leaves, to 2 cm broad, are edible, and the bulbs are used for diarrhoea, cough, and colds.

This plant was named in honour of Danish physician and botanist Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854), who studied the Indian and Himalayan flora in the early 1800s.



Allium wallichii, just beginning to form fruits, Ghangyul (2500 m), Helambu, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Tibetia himalaica, formerly known as Gueldenstaedtia himalaica, is a plant of the pea family (Fabaceae), which forms dense or lax mats of tiny, pinnate, densely silky-hairy leaves, to 7 cm long, with many leaflets of variable shape. The flowers are arranged in groups of 1-3, sometimes 4, on thread-like stalks, violet, blue, or deep mauve, sometimes red.

It grows at elevations between 3,000 and 5,000 m, from the Chinese provinces Gansu and Qinghai southwards across Tibet to Pakistan, and thence eastwards to south-western China.



Tibetia himalaica, Fanga, Gokyo Valley, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Blue jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) is native to north-western Argentina and southern Bolivia, growing on plains, flooded savannas, and montane slopes of the eastern Andes, up to an elevation of about 2,600 m. It is widely cultivated elsewhere in warmer countries due to its wonderful display of violet, fragrant flowers.

The name is of Tupi-Guarani origin, meaning ‘fragrant’. This name was adopted by the Portuguese.



Flowering blue jacaranda, Kathmandu, Nepal. The clock tower in the upper picture is Ghanta Ghar, originally built in 1894, but altered after the huge 1934 earthquake, when it was almost completely destroyed. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Wild tulips, genus Tulipa, comprising about 75 species, are found from southern Europe eastwards to Central Asia, growing naturally in temperate areas on steppes and in mountains. Early in spring, the leaves emerge, sprouting from the underground bulb, and the gorgeous flowers emerge later in the spring. During the summer, flowers and leaves wither.

It is assumed that the Persians acquired bulbs from nearby Turkestan about two thousand years ago. Cultivation of tulips spread slowly westwards, and it is known that they were cultivated in Constantinople as early as 1055, and in Vienna from 1554.

The name tulip is derived from Ancient Persian tauleban (‘turban’), alluding to the flower shape of most species.



Cultivated tulips, Den Helder, West-Friesland, Holland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Scabious (Knautia) is a genus of about 48 species, native to Europe, North Africa, and Turkey, eastwards to central Siberia and Central Asia. The flowers are borne on inflorescences in the form of heads, similar to composites. Each head contains many florets.

Members of this genus are usually called scabious, although, strictly speaking, that name is reserved for a closely related genus, Scabiosa. Species of scabious were once utilized to treat scabies and other skin problems, hence the name. The word is derived from the Latin scabere (‘to scratch’).

The generic name was applied by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) in honour of two German brothers, Christoph Knaut (1638-1694) and Christian Knaut (1656-1716), both botanists and physicians. The latter published Compendium Botanicum sive Methodus Plantarum Genuina, in which he provided a classification system for flowering plants, based on petal number and arrangement.

Previously, these plants were placed in the scabious family (Dipsacaceae), but this family has been reduced to a subfamily, Dipsacoideae, within the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae). The flowers are densely clustered in a terminal head, resembling composites of the family Asteraceae.


Field scabious (K. arvensis) is widely distributed, from western Europe eastwards across temperate areas of Asia to central Siberia, southwards to the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia.

The specific name is Latin, meaning ‘growing in fields’, derived from arvus (‘cultivated land’).



Field scabious, Jutland, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The main distribution area of the tall, bristly-hairy wood scabious (K. dipsacifolia) is the Alps and the Pyrenees, at elevations between 400 and 2,100 m. It also occurs in Hungary and the Balkans, and further north in scattered locations in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Its habitat includes grassy areas, forest margins, and open forests.

The specific name is Latin, meaning ‘with leaves like Dipsacus‘ (teasel).



Wood scabious, Rosanin Valley, near Thomatal, Austria. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The long-leaved scabious (K. longifolia) is much like the wood scabious (above), but the leaves are very long and narrow, long-pointed. It is distributed in the southern and eastern Alps, the Carpathians, and the Balkan Peninsula, growing in grasslands, shrubberies, and forest clearings, preferably on calcareous soils.



Long-leaved scabious, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. Kidney-vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria) and spiked yellow lousewort (Pedicularis elongata) are also seen. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Bell heather (Erica cinerea) is a dwarf shrub of the family Ericaceae, distributed in western Europe, from the British Isles eastwards to Germany, southwards to northen Spain and northern Italy. It is also found in southern Norway and on the Faroe Islands. It mainly grows on moors and heathland, but may also be found coastal dunes, and occasionally in woodland.

The specific name is Latin, meaning ‘ash-coloured’. What it refers to is not clear.



Bell heather, Ross Wood, Loch Lomond (top), Loch Hourn (centre), and near Dervaig, Isle of Mull, Inner Hebrides, all in Scotland. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The red campion (Silene dioica), also known as red catchfly, is a beautiful member of the carnation family (Caryophyllaceae), formerly known as Melandrium rubrum. The colour of the flowers is a lovely reddish-violet.

This plant is distributed from northern Scandinavia and Ireland southwards to the Pyrenees, Italy, and the Balkans, and eastwards to western Russia. It has an isolated population in the Caucasus, and a scattered occurrence in Iceland, Spain, and western Siberia. It has also been introduced to North America. In northern Europe, it is very common, growing in shrubland, woods, along roads, and among rocks.

The generic name refers to the Greek woodland god Silenus, whose name is derived from the Greek sialon (‘saliva’). Silenus was often depicted covered in a sticky foam. The connection is that the female flowers of red campion secrete a frothy foam, which captures pollen from visiting insects.

The specific name dioica is the feminine gender of dioicus, from the Greek dis (‘twice’) and oikos (‘house’), thus ‘two houses’, referring to the fact that the plant has male and female flowers on separate plants. The former name Melandrium is derived from the Greek melas (’black’) and aner, genitive andros (’adult male’), referring to the dark (male) stamens, whereas rubrum is Latin, meaning ’red’.

On the Isle of Man, Britain, the plant is called blaa ny ferrishyn (‘fairy flower’) in the Gaelic, and traditionally there is a taboo against picking it. (Source: A.W. Moore 1924. A Vocabulary of the Anglo-Manx Dialect. Oxford University Press)



Red campion, growing together with common nettle (Urtica dioica), Nature Reserve Vorsø, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Red campion is very common on the Danish island of Bornholm, where this picture was taken. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Red campion, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Another member of the carnation family with the same flower colour is the sticky catchfly (Viscaria vulgaris), which is distributed from England eastwards to western Siberia, and from Scandinavia southwards to Italy, Greece, the Caucasus, and Kazakhstan. It has also become naturalized in north-eastern North America.

The generic name is Latin, meaning ‘resembling viscum‘ – the classical Latin name of mistletoe, from which a birdlime with the same name was produced. In this connection, the name refers to the sticky stem of this plant, on which small insects are often caught – reflected in the common name. The sticky substance may deter nectar thieves such as ants.



Fallow field with thousands of sticky catchfly, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sticky catchfly, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Persian silk tree (Albizia julibrissin) is a small tree in the subfamily Mimosoideae, of the huge pea family (Fabaceae). It is native to large parts of southern Asia, from the Middle East eastwards to China and Japan, but is widely cultivated elsewhere. The generic name was given in honour of an Italian nobleman, Filippo degli Albizzi, who introduced this species to Europe in the 18th Century. The specific name is a corruption of the Persian gul-i abrisham, from gul (‘flower’) and abrisham (‘silk’), thus ‘silk flower’.



Stamens of Persian silk tree are reddish-violet. In this picture from New Plymouth, New Zealand, masses of fallen stamens cover most of the ground. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The Woolworth Tower in Manhattan, New York City, was built as early as 1913, and with a height of 241 m it was the tallest building in the world until 1930.



The night sky behind the Woolworth Tower assumes an almost violet colour. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Rockroses (Cistus) is a genus of about 20 species of shrubs, growing on dry or rocky soils around the Mediterranean, from France, the Iberian Peninsula, and Morocco eastwards to the Caucasus and northern Iran, and also on the Canary Islands.

The generic name is derived from kistos, the Greek word for rockroses.

The gum rockrose (Cistus ladanifer) is well adapted to grow in the Mediterranean area, as it is able to withstand the hot summer due to a sticky substance that covers the entire plant. In Spanish it is known as jara pringosa (‘sticky rockrose’).

It is an invasive plant, which has taken over much of former farmland and grasslands in central Spain and much of southern Portugal.

The specific name refers to the fragrant resin of this plant, from which labdanum is extracted, used in herbal medicine and perfumes.



The flowers of gum rockrose are white with a dark purplish-violet spot at the base of each of the 5 petals, and bright yellow stamens. On this flower, the spots are unusually large. It was photographed in Parque Natural de Monfragüe, Extremadura, Spain. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Osbeckia is a genus of shrubs with spectacular violet, red, or pink flowers with a curved style and 8-10 yellow stamens in a dense cluster. The fruit is a capsule, opening by pores at the tip. The genus contains about 45 species, mainly found in tropical and subtropical parts of Asia, from India eastwards to Japan, and thence southwards to Australia, and also in tropical areas of West Africa, and on Madagascar.

The generic name honours Swedish explorer and naturalist Pehr Osbeck (1723-1805) who was an apostle of the famous Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). In 1750-1752, he travelled on board the Prins Carl to Asia, where he spent four months studying flora, fauna, and culture of the Canton region of southern China. Returning home, he contributed more than 600 plant species to Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum, published in 1753. In 1757, he published an account of his work in China, called Dagbok öfwer en ostindisk Resa åren 1750, 1751, 1752. Med anmärkningar uti naturkunnigheten, främmande folkslags språk, seder, hushållning, m.m. (‘Diary of a Journey to the East Indies 1750, 1751, 1752. With notes about lore on nature, languages of foreign peoples, habits, household etc.’).

Osbeckia lanata is endemic to highlands of Sri Lanka. It may be identified by its small and crowded, ovate or rounded leaves with 3 deeply indented nerves. The specific name is Latin, meaning ‘woolly’, referring to the underside of the leaves, which is covered in brown hairs.



Osbeckia lanata, Hakgala, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




An unidentified species of Osbeckia, Adam’s Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, Sri Lanka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




As its name implies, the beach vetchling or beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus, previously L. maritimus) is partial to beaches, growing in sandy or stony areas. It is native to arctic, subarctic, and temperate areas of Eurasia and North America, but with a disjunct occurrence, found in western and north-eastern North America, northern Europe, and from north-eastern Siberia southwards to Japan and south-eastern China. It has also become naturalized in Chile and Argentina.

Young pods and seeds are edible and were formerly consumed by various North American indigenous peoples. In his book Cape Cod (1865), American author Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) quotes that “in 1555, during a time of great scarcity, the people about Orford in Sussex, England, were preserved by eating the seeds of this plant, which grew there in great abundance on the sea-coast.”

However, the seeds contain a toxic amino-acid, which can cause lathyrism (muscle wasting), if consumed in large quantities. The leaves are used in Chinese traditional medicine.



Beach vetchling, Welwyn Preserve, Long Island, New York State. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The genus Aster has given name to the composite family (Asteraceae). The word is Ancient Greek, meaning ‘star’, alluding to the spreading ray florets.


Alpine aster (Aster alpinus) is very variable, occurring in at least 10 subspecies. It has a huge distribution area, found in the major part of central and southern Europe, eastwards to Central and East Asia, and also in western North America. In Europe, an isolated population occurs in the Harz Mountains, northern Germany, probably an Ice Age relic.



Alpine aster, Passo Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Aster himalaicus is a small plant with spreading or erect stems to 25 cm tall, but often much lower. Flowerheads are terminal, solitary, to 4.5 cm across, with up to 50 lilac ray florets, whereas the disc florets are yellow, orange, or brownish-yellow. This species grows in open areas between 3,600 and 4,800 m altitude, from central Nepal eastwards to Myanmar and south-western China.



Early in the morning, the flowerhead of this Aster himalaicus, growing near the Kyanjin Gompa, Langtang National Park, central Nepal, was covered in rime, which by now has melted in the morning sun. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




In former days, a large number of North American composites were included in the genus Aster (above). However, following comprehensive research, the New World species have been transferred to the genera Almutaster, Canadanthus, Doellingeria, Eucephalus, Eurybia, Ionactis, Oligoneuron, Oreostemma, Sericocarpus, and Symphyotrichum. Popularly, they are still called asters.

Despite its name, the New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is widely distributed, found in south-eastern Canada and the major part of the United States, except the south-western states. It is a robust plant, which may grow to 1.2 m tall. The flowerheads have numerous ray florets, sometimes up to 100, which are normally deep purple, occasionally pink or white. The likewise numerous disc florets are yellow or orange, turning brownish with age.



New England aster, Muttontown Preserve, Long Island, New York State. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), a dwarf shrub of the heather family (Ericaceae), is described on the page In praise of the colour blue.



Blueberries are blue, but eating them gives a violet tongue. – Ib Krag Petersen, photographed on the island of Møn, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




A close relative of blueberry is bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), which has a huge distribution, found in temperate and subarctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere, besides isolated populations in montane areas, including the Pyrenees, the Alps, and the Caucasus in Europe, the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains in North America, and mountains in Mongolia, China, Korea, and Japan. The berries have a slightly acidic taste. They are depicted on the page Autumn.

The specific name is derived from the Latin uligo (‘dampness’), referring to the fact that the prime habitat of this species is swampy areas.



This large growth of bog bilberry, growing in Nature Reserve Tipperne, Jutland, Denmark, displays a fantastic reddish-violet autumn foliage. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Holi is a Hindu spring festival, celebrating the god Krishna, and the victory of good over evil – a gay festival, in which people, regardless of caste, pelt each other with red, yellow, purple, or green powder, or with water, dyed with powder. For this reason, Holi has been dubbed The Festival of Colours.

My own ‘colourful’ adventures during Holi are related on the page Travel episodes – India 1991: Attending Hindu festivals in Rajasthan.



During Holi, these people in the city of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, have had their share of reddish-violet dye. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The vervain genus (Verbena), counting about 150 species of shrubby herbs, is native to temperate, subtropical, and tropical areas of the Americas, Europe, western and southern Asia, Africa, and Australia, with the majority in the Americas and Asia.

The tuberous vervain (Verbena rigida), also called slender vervain, is native to South America, from Bolivia and south-eastern Brazil southwards to northern Argentina. Elsewhere, it is a popular garden plant, which has become naturalized in numerous warmer areas around the world. The popular name alludes to its undergrond tuber.



Tuberous vervain, Jacksonville, North Carolina, United States. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Colchicum montanum, previously known as Merendera montana, has strap-shaped, linear leaves, to 22 cm long and 1 cm wide, which appear in spring, but wither during the summer. Late in the summer, the flowers appear, solitary, with 6 mauve or pinkish petals, to 6.5 cm long and 1 cm wide. The yellow anthers are large, longer than the filaments.

The whole plant contains the alkaloid colchicine, with the highest concentrations in the leaves, which deters herbivores from eating them.

It is widespread in the Iberian Peninsula, northwards to the Pyrenees, where it may be found up to an elevation of about 2,600 m. It is abundant in pasture lands, flourishing along roads and trails, often in dry and stony places. The highest density is found in highly disturbed areas with large populations of a species of vole, Microtus duodecimcostatus. Research suggests a symbiotic relationship between the two: the voles feed on the much less toxic rhizomes, which activates asexual reproduction processes. This mechanism is not observed in undisturbed pastures. (Source: D. Gómez et al. 2003. Seasonal and spatial variations of alkaloids in Merendera montana in relation to chemical defense and phenology. J. Chemical Ecol. 29 (5): 1117-1126)



Colchicum montanum, growing in bog moss, Alto Gallego, Pyrenees, Aragon, Spain. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Morning-glories are a huge genus, Ipomoea, comprising more than 500 species, most of which are twining plants with large, beautiful flowers. The generic name, from the Greek ip (‘worm’) and hómoia (‘resembling’), was applied by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) in allusion to the worm-like movements of the stem, which twines around other plants, fences, etc.

The beach morning-glory (Ipomoea pes-caprae) is a very common plant on sandy beaches in all tropical and some subtropical areas of the world, easily spreading by its seeds, which are able to float for a long time, unaffected by salt water.

The specific name is derived from the Latin pes (‘foot’) and the Greek capra (‘goat’), referring to the shape of its leaves, which, to Carl Linnaeus, apparently resembled the footprint of a goat.



Beach morning-glory, Hambantota, Sri Lanka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)





In India, it is a common practice to decorate the entrance to your home every morning with crayons. This picture is from Mysore, Karnataka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Cranesbill (Geranium) is a large genus with about 380 species of herbs, mainly distributed in temperate areas, in the subtropics and tropics restricted to mountains.

The stipules (leaf-like appendices at the base of leaves) are often distinct on these plants. After flowering, the style forms a long, straight or up-curved beak, which separates into 5 elastic spring-like coils, each containing a single seed that is expelled, usually when the style is touched.

The generic name is derived from the Greek geranos (‘crane’), alluding to the fruit, whose shape resembles a crane’s bill.


Wood cranesbill (Geranium sylvaticum) grows in open forests and meadows, from the lowland up to elevations around 2,300 m. It is distributed in the entire Europe, from Iceland and the British Isles eastwards to central Siberia and Kazakhstan, southwards to Spain, Turkey, and northern Iran. It has also been encountered in southern Greenland, but may be introduced there.

The specific name means ‘growing in woods’, derived from the Latin silva (‘forest’).



Wood cranesbill, growing along a road, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Wood cranesbill in rainy weather, Rossfeld, near Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, Germany. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense) possibly originated in Central Asia, but is today distributed from the entire Europe and Turkey eastwards almost to the Pacific Ocean, southwards to the Himalaya and northern China. It has also become naturalized in North America.



Meadow cranesbill, growing at the edge of a road, eastern Jutland, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Sticky cranesbill (Geranium viscosissimum) is found in western North America, from southern British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan southwards to California and New Mexico. It grows in a variety of habitats, including pine forest, juniper woodland, meadows, and along rivers, at elevations between 1,000 and 2,500 m.

Stem, leaves, and flower stalks are covered with sticky hairs, and research has shown that the plant is able to absorb protein from insects that get stuck in these hairs.

Formerly, members of the Niitsitapi peoples (‘Blackfeet’) used an infusion from this plant to treat diarrhoea and other gastric problems, and also urinary trouble. The root was dried and powdered and then used to stop external bleeding. An infusion of the leaves was used to treat colds and sore throat.



Sticky cranesbill, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Dusky cranesbill (Geranium phaeum) mostly grows in shady places, along forest edges and in shrubberies. It is native to southern, central, and eastern Europe, from Spain and France eastwards to the Balkan Peninsula and Ukraine, northwards to Poland and Belarus. It is widely cultivated and has become naturalized northwards to the British Isles, Sweden, and Finland.



Dusky cranesbill, Lake Gosau, Austria. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




When Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) named the bloody cranesbill Geranium sanguineum (Latin for ‘blood-red’), he did not refer to the flower colour, but to the fact that the leaves turn bright red in autumn. The flowers have a gorgeous reddish-violet colour. This plant is found from the British Isles eastwards to western Siberia, and from Scandinavia southwards to the Mediterranean and the Caucasus.



Bloody cranesbill, Samsø, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Bloody cranesbill, growing among coastal rocks at Hammerknuden (top), and Randkløve, both on the island of Bornholm, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)





Wearing a violet sari, this woman brings offerings of mallas (marigold garlands) to the sacred Ganges River, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The genus Melampyrum, comprising about 40 species, are parasitic plants of the broomrape family (Orobanchaceae). They are distributed in arctic and temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, southwards to Spain, Turkey, and China, and the Carolinas in America.

The generic name is derived from the Greek melampyron, of melas (‘black’) and pyros (‘wheat’), referring to the black seeds, which somewhat resemble wheat grains. An ancient belief had it that the seeds, when mixed with wheat and ground into flour, tended to make the bread black. In the Middle Ages, it was also believed that the seeds were capable of being converted into wheat, supposedly because of the sudden appearance of these plants among wheat, planted on recently cleared land. Cows and sheep readily eat these plants, hence the name cow-wheat. (Source: M. Grieve, 1931. A Modern Herbal. Jonathan Cape, here from

In his Cruydeboeck (herb book), Flemish physician and botanist Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585) tells us that “the seeds of this herb taken in meate or drinke troubleth the braynes, causing headache and drunkennesse.”

Wood cow-wheat (M. nemorosum) mainly grows in eastern Europe, found from Denmark, Germany, and Italy eastwards to north-western Russia.

Popular names include the Swedish natt-och-dag (‘night-and-day’) and the Russian Ivan-da-Marya (‘Ivan-and-Maria’), both names referring to its striking inflorescences, with yellow flowers and bright purplish-violet bracts.



Wood cow-wheat is fairly common in Sweden. The large growth in the upper picture was observed in Småland, whereas the plant in the lower picture was growing along a hedge near Halltorps Hage, Öland. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Pineapple (Ananas comosus), of the family Bromeliaceae, is native to South America, where it has been cultivated for hundreds of years. Today, it is cultivated in warm areas around the world, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Brazil, and the Philippines being the largest producers.

Botanically, the pineapple is an herb, which may grow to 1.5 m tall, sometimes taller. It has a short, stocky stem with tough, waxy, spiny leaves, growing to 1 m long. It produces up to 200 bluish-violet flowers, in cultivation sometimes more. In the wild state, it is pollinated primarily by hummingbirds, sometimes at night by bats. The individual fruits, which are berries, join together to create a multiple fruit, the ‘pineapple’.

The English name stems from 1568, from the book Les singularitez de la France antarctique (1557), written by French priest, explorer, and writer André Thevet (1516-1590), relating his experiences in France Antarctique, a French settlement near present-day Rio de Janeiro. In English, this book is titled The New Found World, or Antarctike. Thevet refers to a fruit, cultivated and eaten by the Tupinambá people, living in this area. He describes the fruit as nanas, a Tupi word meaning ‘excellent fruit’, and says that it was made in the manner of a ‘pine apple’ (pine cone). (Source:

The Tupi word was adopted by Scottish botanist Philip Miller (1691-1771) as the plant’s generic name in the form Ananas, whereas the specific name is Latin, derived from coma, which literally means ‘hair’, but is also used as a term for leaves, thus ‘with many leaves’.



Flowering pineapple, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Stachytarpheta, often called porterweeds, is a genus of about 125 species of shrubby herbs of the vervain family (Verbenaceae). Their flowers are much visited by bees, butterflies, and birds, especially smaller hummingbirds.

The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek stachys (‘spike’) and tarphys (‘thick’), referring to the inflorescence of many of the species in the genus.

Purple porterweed (Stachytarpheta frantzii), which grows to about 1.2 m tall, is native from Mexico eastwards to Panama.



Purple porterweed, El Castillo, Cordillera de Tilarán, Costa Rica. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Blue Mesa is an area in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona, which consists of thick layers of grey, blue, purple, or green mudstone, deposited about 220 million years ago.



This picture from Blue Mesa shows bands of purple layers, alternating with pale grey. In front a bit of a fossilized tree trunk. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Nightshade (Solanum) is one of the largest plant genera in the world, counting more than 1,300 species, including a number of very important food plants, such as potato (S. tuberosum), tomato (S. lycopersicum), tamarillo (S. betaceum), and eggplant (S. melongena).

The generic name is of unknown origin, possibly derived from the Latin sol (’sun’) referring to the fact that plants of this genus prefer to grow in sunny places. The popular name is a corruption of an ancient Germanic name of these plants, Nachtschatten, of unknown meaning. As Schatten also means ‘shadow’ in German, the name nightshade was introduced, but apparently this is a misnomer.


Solanum etuberosum is a spectacular plant, to 1.5 m tall, leaves pinnate, to 35 cm long and 15 cm wide, flowers violet, to 3.5 cm across, fruit globose, green or deep purple, to 1.3 cm in diameter. It is endemic to central Chile, growing in dry scrub forest or along streams on the slopes of the Andes, up to an altitude of about 2,500 m.

The specific name is Latin, meaning ‘without tubers’.



Solanum etuberosum, Reserva Nacional Altos de Lircay. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Purple nightshade (Solanum xanthi) is easily identified by its large, gorgeous flowers, which have green and white markings in the centre. It is native to south-western North America, in Arizona, California, and Baja California,



Purple nightshade, Torrey Pines State Park, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Another member of the nightshade family is the beautiful Schizanthus hookerii, also called butterfly flower, fringe flower, and poor man’s orchid. The flowers of this genus, which is native to Chile and Argentina, are pollinated by bees, bumblebees, and wasps.



Schizanthus hookerii, Reserva Nacional Altos de Lircay, Chile. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




In my opinion, the stout Cardamine violacea, growing to 1 m tall, is the most handsome of the Himalayan bittercress species, with gorgeous, dark purple flowers in a dense, terminal, spike-like cluster. It is found at elevations between 1,800 and 4,000 m, distributed from western Nepal eastwards to south-western China. In Nepal, tender parts are cooked as a vegetable.


Cardamine violacea, photographed at Deorali, Annapurna, central Nepal, at an altitude of about 3,200 m. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata) is a stout plant, growing to 60 cm tall, occasionally taller. The inflorescence is a terminal, dense cluster of 15-20 sessile flowers, corolla blue, dark violet-blue, or purplish-blue, to 3 cm long.

It grows on calcareous soils in open forests, shrubberies, dry grasslands, and sometimes along roads and trails. It is native to northern temperate areas of Eurasia, from almost all of Europe eastwards to the Pacific, southwards to Spain, Turkey, Iran, the Himalaya, northern China, and Japan. It has also become naturalized in North America.

The specific name is Latin, meaning ‘gathered in a group’, referring to the dense inflorescence. An old folk name is Dane’s blood, alluding to the fancy belief that this plant sprouted in places, where Danes had been slain in battle.

Other bellflower species are presented on the pages Plants: Flora of the Alps and the Pyrenees, Plants: Himalayan flora 1, and In praise of the colour blue.



Clustered bellflower, Karakol Valley, Kyrgyzstan (top), Dixence, Valais, Switzerland (centre), and Col du Soulor, French Pyrenees. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Milk-vetch (Astragalus) is a huge genus, comprising more than 3,000 species of herbs or small shrubs, native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.

Astragalus onobrychis is usually a prostrate plant, forming dense growths to 30 cm tall, occasionally to 60 cm. It is native from the western Alps eastwards to western Siberia and the Altai Mountains, southwards to the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, and northern Iran. It was originally a steppe plant, which has adapted to grassy areas in mountains.

The specific name alludes to the similarity of the flowers to those of the genus Onobrychis.



Astragalus onobrychis, Upper Rhone Valley, Valais, Switzerland. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The barestem larkspur (Delphinium scaposum), also known as naked delphinium, is a tall plant, sometimes growing to 80 cm tall. It is distributed in desert areas of south-western United States and the Mexican state of Sonora, found on rocky hillsides, in juniper woodlands, and in grasslands, at elevations between 1,200 and 2,700 m.

The common names allude to the leaves being almost all basal.



Barestem larkspur, Saguaro East National Park, Arizona. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The pretty dragonmouth (Horminum pyrenaicum), also called Pyrenean dead-nettle, is the only member of the genus. It is restricted to the Pyrenees, the Cantabrian Mountains, and the Alps, at altitudes between 1,000 and 3,500 m, growing in pastures and other grassy ares, in open forests, and among scree.

The generic name is derived from the Greek hormao (‘to hasten’), referring to the uasge of this herb as an aphrodisiac. The common name refers to the gaping corolla.



Dragonmouth, Passo Falzárego, Dolomites, Italy. Spiked yellow lousewort (Pedicularis elongata) and mountain valerian (Valeriana montana) are also seen in the upper picture. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla) are distributed in subalpine and temperate regioms of the Northern Hemisphere, southwards to south-western United States, Spain, Iran, and southern China.

The generic name is from the Latin pulsare (’to beat’), referring to the flowers, which move back and forth in the wind. The word pasque is from the Latin pascha, a corruption of the Ancient Greek páskh, which was ultimately from the Hebrew pésakh (‘Passover’). This one-day feast begins on the 14th day of the first month, followed by the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. In Christianity, pasque is an old expression for Easter. The name pasque flower refers to the early flowering of several species, often coinciding with Easter.

The role of these plants in traditional medicine and folklore is described on the page Plants: Anemones and pasque flowers.


The common pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) is a European plant, found from Britain eastwards to western Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, and from central Sweden southwards to the Alps and Slovenia. It grows in grassy areas and open forests, restricted to calcareous soil.



Common pasque flower is very common on the Swedish island Öland, here photographed at Beijershamn. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Mountain pasque flower (Pulsatilla montana) is a prostrate, hairy plant, to 20 cm tall, stem erect, basal leaves long-stalked, pinnately divided into narrow segments, flowers terminal, nodding, petals 6, bluish-violet or sometimes blackish, to 3 cm long, shaggy-hairy on the outside.

This species is distributed from the western Alps eastwards to the Carpathians and mountains on the Balkan Peninsula, growing on dry calcareous soils, from the lower valleys up to altitudes of about 2,000 m.



Mountain pasque flower, Valnontey, Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Eastern pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) grows in meadows, prairies, pine forests, and dry rocky areas. It is found from northern Finland eastwards across Siberia to northern China, and in most of western and central North America, southwards to north-western Mexico. Other popular names include cutleaf anemone, prairie smoke, and prairie crocus, although it is in no way related to true crocuses.

It comes in two varieties, var. patens of Europe and western Siberia, and var. multifida of eastern Siberia and North America. The former is highly threatened in Finland due to former over-collecting, and the latter is declining in America due to increased cultivation of prairies.



Eastern pasque flower, var. multifida, Zolotoi Khrebet (‘Golden Ridge’), Chukotka, eastern Siberia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




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(Latest update September 2023)