Some more useful members of the Caryophyllaceae family

There are four more members of the Caryophyllacea mentioned by Barker in his Medicinal Flora, which have some medicinal use

Herniaria glabra or Smooth Rupturewort, Spergularia rubra or Sand Spurrey, Agrostemma githago or Corn-Cockle and Saponaria officinalis or Soapwort.

Herniaria is an attractive foliage plant which I was given by a good friend of Ecorecord. I’ve just read that it makes a good alternative to replacing grass as an evergreen ground cover!

The name Herniaria is derived from the coumarin called herniarin which it contains and is also found in Lavandula latifolia as well as in some members of the Asteraceae. The known action of this plant is on the bladder and kidneys where it helps remove salt and urea. It sooths urinary tract pain.

Spergularia rubra or Sand Spurrey, is a pretty sprawling plant which according to Decaux is an effective remedy against the pain of kidney and bladder infections and deserves to recover its former popularity.

Agrostemma githago or Corn-Cockle was probably native to the Mediterranean but became a troublesome agricultural weed in the UK a long time ago. It is probably the only member of the family which is poisonous to animals and there is some history of human poisoning which has come about by long term eating of bread made from flour contaminated by ground Corn-Cockle seeds. It is one of the oldest weeds of cereals and is probably, along with Darnel (p.487 in Medicinal Flora), one of the weeds in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13). The leaves have been used medicinally and also as food in time of famine.


All parts of the plant are poisonous and contain githagin and agrostemmic acid. It has been used in folk medicine despite the risk of fatal poisoning.

The plant was believed to be completely extinct in the United Kingdom until 2014, when a single specimen was found growing in Sunderland by an assistant ranger of the National Trust. It is now often  sown as part of an attractive cornfield mix flower.

Saponaria officinalis native range extends throughout Europe, and in Asia to western Siberia. But it is probably an archaeophyte in the British Isles.  Soapwort was traditionally used as a cleansing agent for the hair and skin, and is still used in parts of the Middle East for gently washing woollens and tapestries.

The scientific name Saponaria is derived from the Latin sapo meaning “soap”, which, like its common name, refers to its utility in cleaning. From this same Latin word is derived the name of the toxic substance saponin, contained in the roots at levels up to 20 percent when the plant is flowering.  The epithet officinalis indicates its medicinal functions. 

The individual flowers open in the evening and stay open for about three days.They produce a stronger scent at night and supplement nectar production during the hours of darkness. The flowers are visited by various insects including Noctuidae,Sphingidae, bumblebees, and hoverflies.

External use:

As its common name implies, it can be used as a very gentle soap, usually in dilute solution. It has historically been used to clean delicate or unique textiles; it has been hypothesized that the plant was used to treat the Shroud of Turin.

A lathery liquid that has the ability to dissolve fats or grease can be procured by boiling the leaves or roots in water. Take a large handful of leaves, bruise and chop them and boil for 30 minutes in 600 ml  of water; strain off the liquid and use this as you would washing-up liquid.

Medicinal uses:

Parts used: the rhizome and roots as well as the aerial parts.                             Harvest of roots in autumn and aerial parts in summer.

Action: Laxative. Weak diuretic, Expectorant. Diaphoretic. Cholagogue and Chloretic.

Uses: Coughs and bronchitis, various skin disorders: internally (caution: short courses only) or, as a skin lotion in eczema, psoriasis and acne. As a wash in stomatitis (including Vincent’s angina) and in herpes simplex labialis (= cold sores)

Now some more of the Caryophyllaceae which are pretty enough to plant out as an ornamental!

Most of the Pinks or Dianthus are native, but very rare, such as; the Cheddar Pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus ) of which I obtained seeds through the Hardy Plant Society several years ago. It only grows native in the British Isles in the Cheddar Gorge near Bristol.

Most of the Campions or Silene &  Lychnis are common in their native habitats only.

I learnt through Wikipedia that the genus Silene has 700 species worldwide and is therefore the largest genus of the family.

S. dioica or Red Campion is probably the most common here in the Midlands, a colourful plant in hedgerows and anywhere in moisture retentive soil. Good enough as a garden plant, I think! One particularly notable variety is a hot pink, double flowered variety with deep green leaves called ‘Firefly’.


Besides the aesthetic value of its flowers, the crushed seeds of red campion have also been used to treat snakebites . The nectar of the flowers is utilised by bumblebees and butterflies, and several species of moth feed on the foliage.

The Ragged-Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) is a very attractive perennial in damp meadows, more often seen in my native, watery Holland, than in the dry Midlands.. The following entertaining information, is from a very useful little book called ‘Weeds and what they tell us’ by Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, third print (2012) in association with the Biodynamic Farming & Gardening Ass. It is however a booklet for the New World and has therefore different weeds or the same but with different common names.

“The Cuckoo flower (other name for the Ragged Robin) prefers moist meadows. It was introduced from Asia Minor and Siberia, and has value as an animal feed. It has evidently derived its name, cuckoo flower, from the fact that it blossoms when the cuckoo calls, or, perhaps, because of the legend of ‘cuckoo saliva’ or ‘spittle’ from the Old World: the roots of all lychnis/silene species contain saponin, which produces a soapy foam if stirred in water. Before the discovery of soap, together with the true saponaria, it was used for washing. To this same group (which does not grow in the southern states) also belong red campion, found on grainfields and pastures, and white cockle or evening lychnis (probably Silene alba), so-called for its white blossoms, which open in the evening and close with sunrise”.

The Bladder Campion (S. vulgaris) as well as the similar lower growing Sea Campion (S. uniflora) are a lot of fun as they both keep their  ‘bladders’ long after the white flowers have faded. These are really an adapted calyx-tube.

The Catchflies such  as Sticky Catchfly (S. viscaria), Night-flowering Catchfly (S. noctiflora), Nottingham Catchfly (S. nutans) and others are a lot more rare. 

S. viscaria is also grown as an ornamental garden plant. In British horticultural literature it is often referred to by its synonym Lychnis viscaria. The cultivar ‘Splendens Plena’, a double-flowered form, has won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.


Silene viscaria is said to increase the disease resistance of surrounding plants. Extract from S. viscaria contains a relatively high amount of brassinosteroids, which have a proven positive effect on the growth of other plants.

The common name Nottingham catchfly commemorates the former occurrence of S. nutans on the walls of Nottingham Castle, and the species was chosen to represent the unitary authority of Nottingham as its county flower. Despite this association, Nottingham catchflies no longer occur in either the city of Nottingham or the wider county of Nottinghamshire.

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