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U.S. Forest Service

Plant of the Week

Map of the United States showing states. States are colored green where the species may be found. Gilia tricolor range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Gilia tricolor Gilia tricolor. Photo by Robert Fischer.

Gilia tricolor Gilia tricolor. Photo by Charmaine Delmatier.

Bird’s-eyes Gilia (Gilia tricolor)

By Charmaine Delmatier (2016)

You might think that bird’s-eyes gilia (Gilia tricolor) looks like a blue-violet eye with a large dark pupil, and you would be right. Endemic throughout California, bird’s-eyes gilia is a true beauty in spring that can form vast displays across open wet to dry meadows, grassy plains, and mesa tops, usually below 2,000 feet. Its distribution, originally endemic to California, is now in Massachusetts and Texas with the introduction of popular garden seed mixes. They often have a sweet scent similar to chocolate, or some say a musky scent.

Bird’s eye giliais a member of the Phlox or Jacob’s-ladder family, Polemoniaceae. There are close to 25 genera and 400 species worldwide, both annuals and perennials, including herbs, shrubs, small trees, and vines. It is interesting that much of the diversity occurs in California. Some of the key family identifying features include five sepals, five fused petals that often form a tube (corolla), and five stamens alternating between each corolla lobe. In most species, the stamens are also fused into the corolla tube, placed symmetrically between each petal lobe. Another distinguishing family feature is that the ovary’s three carpels are usually fused while retaining three individual chambers.

Bird’s eye gilia is an annual herb with a feathery arrangement of leaves; pinnately dissected leaves. The tubular flowers are a half-inch in diameter and are singular to just a few at the end of each stem. Each flower has five petals and five green sepals with five alternating powder blue anthers which extend beyond the tube. The somewhat free petals are blue-violet on the outside edge with a lighter, almost white, center. Placed at the top of the tubular throat, is a dark purple ring. The inside of the tube is contrasted with a yellow throat. Because of these three striking colors, it receives its scientific name; Gilia tricolor. They are frequently visited by bees and hummingbirds.

The tubular morphology and flower structure in the Phlox family has been a popular study for pollination biology and evolutionary patterns. There are several correlations between tubular length, width, and shape with corresponding pollinator vectors such as bats, hummingbirds, beetles, butterflies, and moths. Assessing associated variations over time have generated insightful correlations to plant speciation. (Galen 2000; Mayfield et al. 2001; Campbell et al. 2003; Lendvai and Levin 2003).

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