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Eyebrights

Euphrasia spp.

  • Family: Broomrape Family – Orobanchaceae
    (formerly Figwort Family – Scrophulariaceae)
  • Growing form: Annual herb. Hemiparasite.
  • Height: 5–20 cm (2–8 in.).
  • Flower: Corolla zygomorphic, 5–10 mm (0.2–0.4 in.) wide, purple–white and often dark-striped, fused, bilabiate, short-tubed. Upper lip shorter than lower, 2-lobed. Lower lip 3-lobed, lobes notched, yellow blotch at base of central lobe. Calyx 4-lobed. Stamens 4. Gynoecium fused, single-styled. Subtending bracts in axils terminating stem and branches.
  • Leaves: Opposite or especially alternate on upper part of stem, usually stalkless. Blade quite elliptic, with toothed margin. Subtending bracts look almost like stem leaves.
  • Fruit: Flat, many-seeded capsule.
  • Habitat: Roadsides and embankments, yards, pastures, rocky outcrops, boat harbours, young meadows, grassy shores.
  • Flowering time: July–August.

Eyebright’s scientific name Euphrasia comes from the Greek word ‘euphrainein’ which means ‘to delight’. In the mythology of Ancient Greece Euphrosyne was the goddess of joy, mirth and euphoria. When the saints’ hagiographies were being written in the Middle Ages, the name was attached to a Catholic saint who had the same qualities. According to legend he gave the gift of sight to a monk who had been blind from birth, and so the name and characteristic were attached to eyebrights. The reason might come from the appearance of the flower which is reminiscent of the eye: the pale perianth is the white, the dark-striped part the iris, and the blotch on the lower labellum the pupil. The juice that can be pressed from eyebrights probably has some anti-bacterial properties and it is still used in some homeopathic preparations.

Originally Linné used the name Euphrasia officinalis for all the eyebrights, and later on they were split into several species which can be difficult to tell apart. In Finland we have had a minimum of one and a maximum of twelve species growing here, and according to the current rules we have seven. Species and subspecies can be divided according to the size and form of the flower, the way that the leaves are toothed, hairiness, the way they are branched, and their flowering time. Classification is an ongoing project and only the most clearly different species are easy to differentiate. The most common – and most difficult – species, drug eyebright (E. stricta) and common eyebright (E. nemorosa) are very similar to each other. Drug eyebright’s flowers are pale purple and the plant is usually sparsely haired, often with glandular hairs. Common eyebright’s flowers are white and it is usually abundantly haired with only straight hairs – cold-weather eyebright (E. frigida), which is very similar, is sparsely haired. The best identification marker for hayne (E. rostkoviana) are its long, multi-cellular hairs. The species don’t always have to be classified according to their hairs however: e.g. E. bottnica, which is native to the remotest corners of the Bay of Bothnia, is quite easy to recognize.

Other species from the same family

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