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.
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/.
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.
The 2 foot tall plant is easily spotted within the surrounding spring vegetation. A basal rosette composed of spatulate leaves produces multiple stems. The stems and leaves of Silene virginica are hairy and somewhat sticky.
Basal rosette and stem with opposite leaves
The upper leaves are opposite and variably hirsute. Each stem terminates in multiple flower buds.
The sticky substance exuded on the calyx and stems of Silene virginica prevents ants and other insects from stealing the nectar, but can adversely affect efforts at photography because insects and debris are often attached to the petals. The nectar is produced throughout the life of the flower with the amount of sugar increasing with flower age.
Bloom Time- Silene virginica blooms from the beginning of April through early June in Arkansas and Missouri.
Habitat- On Ozarkedge, I’ve found Silene virginica in two distinct habitats. One colony occurs in an area of open woods that is rocky and somewhat dry.
The other habitat is mesic woods. Here the plants are found spotted along rocky, creek beds, but not in the surrounding woodlands.
What’s Growing Nearby? Silene virginica has quite a few companions. There are numerous grasses and mosses that can be found growing in close proximity. This is the height of bloom season for some of the most striking wildflowers on Ozarkedge.
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.
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. USDA lists it on the endangered list in both Florida and Wisconsin and has reached Threatened status in Michigan.
Natureserve lists it as Critically Imperiled in Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, Florida and Delaware and Imperiled in Lousiana. It’s Vulnerable in Illinois. Five states show a status of Secure– Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. There is a lot more to learn about the conservation status of Silene virginica because it is Not Ranked in 13 states within its native range. You can access the most up to date information on the Natureserve site by clicking this link . Here’s a picture showing the distribution and conservation status.
(NatureServe. 2015. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. Version 7.1. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available http://explorer.natureserve.org.)
Silene virginica in its native habitat
Interesting Tidbits- An internet search for the best plants to attract hummingbirds will show Silene virginica 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. You can read more about this here. 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.