The bright blooms of Silene virginica have always attracted me. As a young girl, I remember seeing them in the open woods bathed in the warm sun. I was not able to resist picking a few for my mother. It gives me a sense of assurance that they are still there to greet me each spring.
Latin Name/Common Name- The term “silene” likely comes from the Greek sialon, meaning “saliva”. Virginica refers to the native eastern range of the plant.
As usual there is more than one common name for this plant. It is generally referred to as Fire Pink. Another name, Catchfly is due to the sticky nature of the stems and leaves. Small insects may become trapped against the tacky foliage.
The bright red flower of Silene virginica have attracted an insect who may struggle to separate from the tacky exudate on the petals and stems
Bloom Color- The blooms of Fire Pink are bright red. I can understand the “fire” part of the common name, but there is nothing pink about the blooms. In fact, the late Dan Tenaglia describes them as some of the most brilliant red flowers in nature. If you haven’t ever visited his website, check it out. You are in for a treat- http://www.missouriplants.com/.
Notched flower petals help distinguish Silene virginica from the similar flower of Silene regia
Description- Silene virginica is a short-lived perennial native to the eastern North America, except for the most northeastern states. The brilliant red flowers are large and conspicuous, measuring about 1 to 1.5 inches. Each of the five petals is prominently notched at the tip. This helps to distinguish Silene virginica from a close relative, Silene regia, which has bright red flowers that are not notched.
The long-lasting flowers of Silene virginica change from male to female during their lifespan. The male phase typically lasts 2 days. Ten anthers arise from the corolla tube during this time. Three styles arise on the third day. On the fourth day, the styles curve and are able to receive pollen. An interesting article written by Charles Fenster (Nectar reward and advertisement in hummingbird-pollinated Silene virginica) describes this very well. You can read the article here http://www.amjbot.org/cgi/content/abstract/93/12/1800.
Anthers in the male phase of the flower
The 2ft tall plant is easily spotted within the surrounding spring vegetation. A basal rosette with spatulate leaves produces multiple stems. The stems and leaves of Silene virginica are hairy and somewhat sticky.
Basal rosette in late March
Basal rosette and stem with opposite leaves
The upper leaves are opposite and variably hirsute. Each stem terminates in multiple flower buds.
Blooms and buds of Silene virginica
The sticky substance exuded on the calyx and stems of Silene virginica prevents ants and other insects from stealing the nectar, but can affect ones efforts at photography as insects (as well as other substance carried by the wind) may be attached to the petals. The nectar is produced throughout the life of the flower with the amount of sugar increasing with flower age.
Opposite leaves on upper stem of Silene virginica
The hairy stem of Silene virginica
Bloom Time- Silene virginica blooms from the beginning of April through early June in Arkansas and Missouri.
Habitat- On Ozark Edge, I’ve found Silene virginica in two distinct habitats. One colony occurs in an area of open woods that is rocky and somewhat dry.
Silene virginica in open dry woods on Ozark Edge
The other habitat is mesic woods. Here the plants are found spotted along rocky, creek beds, but not in the surrounding woodlands.
Silene virginica on the bank of a creek in mesic woods on Ozark Edge
What’s Growing Nearby? Silene virginica has quite a few companions. There are numerous grasses and mosses growing close by. This is the height of bloom season for some of the most striking wildflowers on Ozark Edge.
Spring beauties, buttercups, violets and wild garlic blooming near Fire pink
Spring beauties, Shooting Stars, Violets, and Buttercups are just a few companions that bloom in close proximity to Silene virginica.
The attractive leaves of the native heuchera also grace the same creek beds.
Heuchera richardsonii growing alongside Silene virginica
Endangered List- As one of our most spectacular and easy to grow native plants, it’s sad to see that Silene virginica is becoming rare within its range. It is found on the endangered list in both Florida and Wisconsin and has reached Threatened status in Michigan. You can follow this on the USDA Plant site at http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=SIVI4.
Silene virginica in its native habitat on Ozark Edge
In Arkansas, there is no listing as to the rarity of this beautiful plant. It’s range is limited to the Ozark region of the state.
The brilliant red blooms contrast beautifully with the verdant moss
Interesting Tidbits- If you perform an internet search for the best plants to attract hummingbirds, Silene virginica will appear near the top of the list. The ruby throated hummingbird is its primary pollinator. Field studies have shown that each flower is typically visited twice per day throughout its bloom time. Many types of butterflies are also attracted to these bright red flowers.
Silene virginica can be propagated from seed and is one of the best natives to grow in a home garden. Seeds are available from many reputable nurseries.