2. On some Very Small Flowering Indigenous Spring Plants.
I have often been struck with the neat and pleasing appearance of several of our very small flowering plants inhabiting the high, open, stony plains in the early spring. These, though mostly perennial, are low, and cannot be detected from a little distance, looking over and across those long and broad flats. To a visitor at that season, so looking at the plains, with their small, stunted, withered herbage, they appear prima facie very dreary, and look still more cheerless than they really are when the blustering cold winds occasionally sweep over them in fitful blasts, soughing through the dry and dead stems of the last year's grasses. To discover their hidden floral beauties is no easy matter, particularly at this season of the year; to do this one must wander into them, and sit or lie down, and peer closely about, even to the pushing-aside the slightly higher and coarser plants (small herbs and grasses not yet in flower) which. overtop and conceal and preserve them—the lowly vernal flowering ones. Some of those tiny flowering herbs form broad perennial patches or little beds, and sometimes, slightly-raised dwarf cushions; but they are generally very low and flat, seldom rising above ½in. from the ground; but all grow thickly intermixed, frequently revealing themselves, even when not in flower, or their flowers closed, as happens on a dull cloudy day, by the various colours and tints of their leaves, which range from very dark- to pale-green, bronze, brown, light-red, and dark-purple. A few of the more striking may be more particularly noticed.
One of them, which is sure on first seeing to attract the attention, is a minute and neat creeping species of Epilobium (the smallest of the many species of that genus found in New Zealand), with its numerous curiously-marked, close-set, regular, orbicular, yellowish-brown leaves, less than 1 line in diameter, and its small, erect, white, star-like flowers. Another is a thick-growing species of Oxalis, with its very small, almost crisped, compact leaves, and pretty yellow flowers. A minute, erect, tufted Asperula, with its curious bicuspidate leaves, and terminal white starry flowers always horizontal and gazing to the sky; of this genus I think there are two species to be found here, one being the A. perpusilla, of Hooker, which, he says, “is the smallest flowering plant in New Zealand. A little and peculiar half-rosulate species of Ranunculus, with its small spreading leaves forming a circle closely appressed to the ground, and its attractive, shining, yellow, star-like flowers, of 5–6 petals, rather large for the little plant; and when the flowers of a score or a dozen of them closely growing together are displayed to the sun they present a lovely galaxy of floral beauty in the desert wild sure to evoke a word of praise. In
some sheltered hollows or small depressions in the soil a small variety of the graceful New Zealand Daisy (“that unassuming commonplace of Nature”) will here and there be sparingly seen, fully expanding its day's-eye to the genial rays of the foster-parent sun. Here, too, may properly be placed a small and neat species of Geranium, which forms low, circular semitufted plants 3in.- 5in. diameter, their root-stocks very stout and branched, the branches very short, each with many small and neatly-cut leaves closely appressed to the soil; its few pale-coloured flowers, on very short scapes, modestly nestling in the centre. Another especial peculiarity of this plant (besides its very short flower-stalks) is the varying colours of its leaves—though all of one plant are of one colour—some being grass- others pale-green, others dark-brown, and others pale-fawn with reddish streaks. A minute Myosotis, scarcely exceeding lin. in height, and bearing yellowish terminal flowers, is sometimes to be met with, but it is rare. This little wee member of the blue-flowered “forget-me-not” family, with its strangely aberrant-coloured flowers, I first detected on the dry shelly banks by the sea-shore, near Farndon, forty years ago A small erect Cardamine, with minute pure-white flowers and dark-purple stalks, very likely identical with those of the Antarctic islets described by Hooker. A little spreading green and shining Colobanthus, with pale-green and white starry flowers. A highly graceful and curious little Leptinella (or Cotula), with neat and regular pinnate leaves, and tiny heads of yellow flowers, forming thick matted beds, its long stolons creeping underground. To obtain only a fair specimen of this pretty little plant one must cut out a pretty large turf. I have good reasons for believing there are two distinct species of Leptinella here on these plains, but they are very much alike at first sight. Another and a similar plant as to its manner of growth (but not as to its foliage and flower) is a small species of Nertera. This plant grows together so densely as rarely to allow of any other growing among its intermixed and rooting branches. Its small and simple, close and concave leaves are almost vertical. Its pale-yellow flowers are diœcious and highly curious, and are large for the humble plant; they grow singly, and are produced clear above its leaves, and are extremely delicate. Its flowers much resemble those of the larger shrubby Coprosma genus, to which this genus is very closely allied. And yet another very similar plant as to its densely compact and matted manner of growth, and also in the form of its closely-set leaves, which are small and very regular, is a species of creeping Gnaphalium, which often forms low, close-growing, and tolerably large patches; its slender flowering-stems, however, which are erect, and appear later in the season, are 2in.-3in. high.
The myriad flowers of all those little plants are all scentless, or nearly so; but not so these of the dwarf perennial Leucopogon that is found growing intermixed with them, but mostly in large, distinct, irregular patches, arising from its creeping underground roots. This is a dear little semi-shrubby plant, with needle-like tips to its small, neat, close, and regular leaves, which have also minutely-serrulate edges (a beautiful object under a magnifying-glass), each short erect stem, or branch, of 1in.-2in. bearing many sweet-smelling flowers that sometimes form a little whorl, diffusing a delightful odour extending to some distance, and serving to betray its source. Wordsworth truly says, “The flower of sweetest smell is shy and lowly.” This dwarf shrub also bears a small dark-orange globular fruit (like a little fairy-like cherry), which is edible, and contains one wee stone. Another scented plant is the elegant-leaved umbelliferous Oreomyrrhis, which displays its dark-purple stems and pinnated leaves in a small radiating circle closely appressed to the ground, or more commonly to the fawn-coloured moss which closely invests it; these are always easily detected by their pleasing dark colour. The whole of this pretty plant is equally scented, and the odour, though strong, is not unpleasant. It is not, however, common, though perennial, and is mostly found scattered, yet sometimes several plants are found growing together.
All those plants (with many others) are generally accompanied by several small, thick-growing, tufted, and creeping mosses of various species, and forms, and colours, mostly barren, yet sometimes found in fruit; with here and there, occasionally, a small specimen of that curiously-formed plant and fern ally, Ophioglossum, with its single leaf and curious erect spike: all which greatly enhance the beauty of the humble and lowly floral scene.
To me, the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that too often lie too deep for tears.
There is still another and deeper consideration that finds its way into the intelligent botanist's mind when pondering over those little plants—viz., that the same or very similar species of some of these small and peculiar genera are only found in far-off isolated spots, distant also from each other— as the Andes from Mexico to Chili, Cape Horn and Fuegia, certain mountains in Australia and Tasmania, and those speck-like islets (Campbell's Island and Lord Auckland's Islands) in the Antarctic Ocean. The due and fair consideration of these facts serves to raise up thoughts almost boundless in the mind —thoughts, questions, seekings which cannot at present be reasonably solved.