Featured plant: Tiny veronicas (speedwells)

From an email by Jocie Brooks to members of the Botany Group on May 18.

Backyard micro-botany

Staying closer to home this spring, I am noticing just how many plants, wanted and unwanted, are in my backyard. This year, I have three tiny species of Veronica (speedwell) blooming in my small, urban lot. Though diminutive, their purple-blue flowers have a certain charm. Due to their micro size, they are often overlooked, stepped on and mowed over. There’s a good chance that if you look for them, you will find one or more of these species in your backyard also. 

More about the genus Veronica

Flowers in the genus Veronica have 4 purple/blue petals, and usually only 2 stamens. Leaves are opposite each other on the stem. Veronicas typically grow in damp, muddy habitats.

The origin of the name Veronica may be a reference to St. Veronica, whose handkerchief had markings that resembled the flower. St.Veronica used the handkerchief to wipe the face of Christ as he carried the cross (the vera-iconica, meaning ‘true likeness’).

The common name “speedwell” comes from the parting words “God be with you” or “go on well,” referring to the healing powers of some species. The petals of Veronica fall off quickly after picking, which is also why it may be called “speedwell.” Another common name for veronicas is “brooklime,” an old English word meaning: “brook” – the stream-side muddy habitats where the plants are often found, and “to lime,” an old verb for trapping birds with sticky materials.

Veronica used to be in the figwort family, or Scrophulariaceae, but has recently been moved to the plantain family, or Plantaginaceae. 

There are some larger, native species of Veronica that will be coming into bloom in late spring and summer, so we might revisit this lovely genus later on!

Three common “backyard” veronicas

1. Thyme-leaved speedwell (Veronica serpyllifolia)

  • Has upright stems with multiple flowers, often whitish and streaked with dark blue.
  • It likes to grow in garden pots in my yard, but it is also found in a variety of habitats: moist places as well as disturbed sites. There are two varieties, one native (var. humifusa) and one introduced (var. serypllifolia) with subtle differences between them.

2. Slender speedwell (Veronica filiformis)

  • Introduced from Asia, this is one of the prettiest of small veronicas, typically growing mixed with lawn grass. The flowers are quite big and showy relative to the small size of the plant. The leaves are kidney-shaped with blunt teeth.

3. Wall speedwell (Veronica arvensis)

  • This tiny but aggressive Veronica has taken over whole sections of my lawn this spring, colonizing patches where the grass died from the drought last summer.
  • The leaves are hairy, and the tiny blue flowers are just a few millimetres across. You need a hand lens for this one!
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