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Grass of Parnassus

Parnassia palustris

  • Name also: Marsh Grass-of-Parnassus, Northern Grass-of-Parnassus, Bog-star
  • Family: Staff Vine Family – Celastraceae
    (formerly Grass of Parnassus Family – Parnassiaceae)
  • Height: 5–25 cm (2–10 in.). Stem usually 1-leaved, sometimes 2-leaved or leafless.
  • Flower: Corolla regular (actinomorphic), white, 2–3 cm (0.8–1.2 in.) broad; petals 5, elliptic, round-tipped, clearly veined, approx. 10 mm (0.4 in.) long. Sepals 5, with tapering tips. Stamens 5. Pistil of 4 fused carpels, almost lacking style, with 4 stigmas. Also with 5 nectariferous staminodes, with broad, blade-like tip crowned by approx. 3 mm (0.12 in.) long pin-headed hairs. Flowers solitary terminating stems, weakly fragrant.
  • Leaves: In basal rosette and alternate on stem. Basal leaves long-stalked, stem leaves stalkless, amplexicaul. Blade ovate, cordate-based (stem leaf flat-based), with entire margins, glabrous, often white-tipped, underside red-spotted.
  • Fruit: 4-lobed, 10–12 mm (0.4–0.48 in.) long capsule.
  • Habitat: Quite rich peatland and shore meadows, fens, rich swamps, spring fens, bog margins, stream banks, slightly boggy former slash-and-burn areas.
  • Flowering time: July–August.

Grass of Parnassus grows where cool air flows in low peatland meadows and wetlands which get easily misty and catch the first night frosts. At the end of summer the blooming flowers used to be a sign to peasants to start reaping and hay-work, and in fact the plant’s Swedish name means ‘hay-work’.

The current scientific nomenclature for flora and fauna was developed by Carl von Linné, who in fact gave many plants binomial generic and specific names which were often inspired by ancient mythology and Greek poems. In ancient times Mount Parnassus in Greece was said to be the home of Apollo and his muse – and grass of Parnassus is certainly as beautiful as any poem. The structure of the flower is so unique that it is well worth a closer look if the chance comes along. The whorl of waste-stamens between the stamens and the petals has changed to become nectariferous. These have become lobed, and the tip of every lobe has a drop-like, honey-coloured bud. The small flies and hymenopterans that pollinate the plant are attracted by the nectar and the nectariferous base. Only one of the five stamens in the flower is active at any one time, with each receiving pollen on average once every 24 hours. The stigma opens up to receive pollen only when all the stamens are empty.

The Parnassus seeds are easily spread by wind and water, and each seed is helped to travel by an air-filled pouch-like appendix. Grass of Parnassus is only common on fens, damp river-bank meadows and fells in Kainuu and Lapland. It is very rare in southern and central Finland, and slightly more common along the coast and on sea-shore meadows in the archipelago.

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