Meadow Beauty family (Melastomataceae)
Description: This herbaceous perennial wildflower is ½–2½' tall and largely unbranched, except near the apex where some lateral stems with flowers are usually produced. Short plants are erect, while tall plants sometimes sprawl across the ground. The central stem is light green to purplish green, sharply 4-angled, narrowly winged, and sparsely to moderately covered with glandular hairs. Pairs of opposite leaves occur along the central stem; they are up to 3" long and 1¼" across, medium green, sharply toothed and ciliate along their margins, hairless to slightly hairy across their upper and lower surfaces, and sessile. The central stem and upper lateral stems (if present) terminate in short cymes of showy flowers. The branches of each cyme are usually glandular-hairy.
Each flower is 1–1½" across, consisting of 4 widely spreading petals that are pink to deep rose-pink, a tubular calyx with 4 widely spreading triangular teeth, 8 stamens with bright yellow to orange-yellow anthers, and a 4-celled ovary with a single long style. The tubular calyx is shaped like a vase with a constricted neck; it is covered with long bristly hairs. The long slender anthers are curved like a sickle; the pollen of each anther is released through a small pore at one end. The blooming period occurs from mid-summer to early fall and lasts about 1-2 months. Each flower is replaced by a seed capsule that remains hidden within the persistent calyx; the calyx becomes red to purplish red after the petals fall off the flower. Each seed capsule contains numerous tiny seeds that are less than 1 mm. in length. The root system is fibrous; some fibrous roots have tuberous swellings. This wildflower reproduces by reseeding itself.
Cultivation: The preference is full sun to light shade, wet to moist conditions, and an acidic sandy soil. Soil containing sphagnum moss or non-alkaline gravel is tolerated as well. In very sunny areas, Virginia Meadow Beauty is often partially shaded by taller plants.
Range & Habitat: The native Virginia Meadow Beauty is uncommon in Illinois; it is found in the NE section of the state and scattered localities elsewhere (see Distribution Map). Habitats include wet sandstone depressions in upland woodlands, sandy swamps, soggy sandy thickets, wet to moist sand prairies, acidic gravelly seeps, interdunal swales, sandy marshes, sandy borders of ponds and lakes, edges of sandy paths in areas that are prone to flooding, and sandy ditches. This wildflower is usually found in high quality natural areas.
Faunal Associations: The flowers are cross-pollinated primarily by bumblebees, which collect pollen using 'buzz pollination.' This is accomplished by the rapid vibration of the thoracic muscles on the anthers to release their pollen through small pores. The polyphagous caterpillars of the moth Scopula limboundata (Large Lace Border) feed on the leaves of Rhexia spp. and many other plants. Because the hairy reddish fruits are somewhat sticky, they may attach themselves to the fur or feathers of passing animals, thereby distributing the seeds into new areas.
Photographic Location: Along the edge of a path in a sandy swamp at the Iroquois County Conservation Area in Iroquois County, Illinois.
Comments: Virginia Meadow Beauty has beautiful flowers with rather odd-looking and showy anthers. Other Rhexia spp. have flowers with similar anthers. The only other species of this genus in Illinois is Rhexia mariana (Pale Meadow Beauty). This latter species differs from Virginia Meadow Beauty by the more pale color of its petals (nearly white to pale pink), the lack of winged extensions on its stems, and its more narrow leaves, which are more lanceolate than ovate in shape. As a result, these two species are fairly easy to distinguish. There are additional Rhexia spp. in the southeastern section of the United States. Other common names for these species are Handsome Harvey, Deergrass, and Meadow Pitchers. This last name probably refers to the shape of the fruits.