Some more useful members of Pink Family or the Caryophyllaceae Part 2

Sea campion or Silene uniflora at Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door, Dorset (picture by Mike Poulton)

This is the second part of useful (and some pretty ones too!) members of the Pink family or officially the Caryophyllaceae. The first part can be found here.

I am very fond of this family as well and have been growing several native and non native species from seed.

There are four more members mentioned by Julian Barker in his Medicinal Flora, which have some medicinal use, which are Herniaria glabra or Smooth Rupturewort, Spergularia rubra or Sand Spurrey, Agrostemma githago or Corn-Cockle and Saponaria officinalis or Soapwort. These will be discussed and other remaining ones in the family with some uses to us on the next page.

Click links for more info and pictures from various websites. Scientific/Latin Name usually has link from the Online Atlas of the British Isles and Irish Flora. Pink background means a warning use (= poisonous!) or medicinal use, green for other uses and blue for interesting facts or wildlife use.

Herniaria glabra or Smooth Rupturewort (picture by Matt Summers)

Herniaria glabra or Smooth Rupturewort

An annual or short-lived perennial of compacted sandy or gravelly soils, often with chalk or limestone fragments. Its habitats are generally kept open by seasonal standing water or other disturbance, and include forestry rides, golf courses, car parks, disused gravel-pits and disturbed areas in short grassland.

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 which 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.

Spergula rubra or Red Sand Spurrey at Sutton Park visit (picture by Mike Poulton)

Spergularia rubra or Red Sand Spurrey

An annual or biennial herb, typically occurring in open habitats on free-draining acidic sands and gravels. Habitats include heaths, commons, tracks (particularly forestry tracks in W. Scotland), quarries, gravel- and sand-pits, railway yards and waste ground. It occasionally grows on stabilised shingle and sand dunes. It is tolerant of trampling.

Spergularia rubra or Red 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. See also here.

Agrostemma githago or Corn-Cockle (picture by Mike Poulton)

Agrostemma githago or Corn-Cockle

A. githago, was accidentally introduced as a grain contaminant and has been present in Britain since the Iron Age. Although common until the 20th century, it has dramatically declined with improved seed cleaning. It is now extinct as an arable weed, but is a frequent component of wild-flower seed mixtures.

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 even as food in time of famine.


All parts of the plants 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.

Attractive double variety of Soapwort (picture by Mike Poulton)

Saponaria officinalis or Soapwort

This rhizomatous perennial herb is found in a wide range of man-made and marginal habitats, often near habitation, including hedge banks, quarries, roadsides, railway banks, tips and waste ground. 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.

It is an attractive perennial, although can be invasive!

The scientific name Saponaria is derived from the Latin sapo meaning “soap”, which, like its common name, refers to its utility in cleaning. The epithet officinalis indicates its medicinal functions. 

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. According to PFAF this is much more toxic to some creatures, such as fish, and hunting tribes have traditionally put large quantities of them in streams, lakes etc in order to stupefy or kill the fish!

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. I saw my first Hummingbird Moth on this flower at Rodbaston College, Staffordshire!

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 the 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 often pretty enough to plant out as an ornamental!

Dianthus or Pinks

Dianthus is a genus of about 340 species of flowering plants in the family Caryophyllaceaenative mainly to Europe and Asia, with a few species in north Africa and in southern Africa, and one species (D. repens) in arctic North America. Common names include carnation (D. caryophyllus), pink (D. plumarius and related species) and sweet william  (D. barbatus). There are 3 main species found in the B.I.

The name dianthus is derived from the Greek dios meaning ‘divine’ and the anthos meaning ‘flower.’

Dianthus gratianopolitanus (by Kurt Stüber in Wikipedia)

Dianthus gratianopolitanus or Cheddar Pink

This densely tufted perennial herb is now mainly confined to high, inaccessible crevices and ledges on Carboniferous limestone cliffs, though it is also found in tightly-grazed, species-rich limestone turf.

There are some Pinks or Dianthus which 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.

Deptford Pink or Dianthus armeria (picture by Bernd Haynold, Wikipedia)

Dianthus armeria or Deptford Pink

Another rare Pink is the Deptford Pink or Dianthus armeria which is now only found at around thirty sites in England and four in Wales. Its largest population is found in Buckfastleigh in Devon and may have been introduced by monks.  I grew this delicate plant from seeds collected by an enthusiastic fellow botanist and plant recorder for Northamptonshire.

An annual or short-lived perennial herb of open, disturbed sites, occurring in short grassland in pastures, roadsides, waysides and field margins, and as a casual on waste ground. It usually grows on dry, often mildly basic soils, but has been recorded on fen-peat.

Dianthus gallicus or Jersey Pink

A mat-forming perennial herb that is infrequently grown in gardens and has become naturalised on grassy sand dunes in St Ouen`s Bay, Jersey (Channel Islands), where it was possibly deliberately introduced

Dianthus deltoides or Maiden Pink

A perennial herb of dry, usually base-rich, soils overlying chalk and limestone, mica-schist or basalt; sometimes on metal-rich mining spoil or sandy soils and dunes. It can occur in short, closed grassland, but prefers an open sward broken by bare rock or soil. 

Sometimes grown as an ornamental rock-garden plant.

Silene and Lychnis or Campions and Catchflies

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.

Silene dioica or Red Campion

Silene dioica or Red Campion

A short-lived perennial herb that is most prominent in lightly shaded habitats such as hedgerows, coppices, and woodland clearings and rides. It can, however, survive in deep shade in a non-flowering form.

This is probably the most common Campion here in the Midlands, a colourful plant in hedgerows and anywhere in moisture retentive soil. Good for the wildlife garden, together with bluebells and cow-parsley in dappled shade.

 One particularly notable garden variety is a hot pink, double flowered variety with deep green leaves called ‘Firefly’. It could easily be called a nativar of which you can read more in an earlier post!

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.

Edible Uses:

  • Red Campion leaves are an ingredient of pistic, a traditional spring dish eaten in northern Italy.
  • Red Campion wine was made in 20th-century Britain by boiling oranges, lemons, red campion flowers and leaves with barley and sugar.
  • The young shoots can be blanched to reduce their bitterness and made into a puree similar to spinach.
  • The leaves of the plant can be added to a variety of dishes, including salads, soups, stews, sauces, herbal cheeses and even as a substitute for asparagus.

Medicinal Uses:

  • Campions (of any species) were once used to treat internal bleeding, kidney disease, sores and ulcers, and stings.
  • Healers also used it to treat warts and corns.
  • In parts of Spain and Italy, the plant was sometimes used for digestive disorders.

Lychnis flos-cuculi or Ragged-Robin

L. flos-cuculi is a herb of damp habitats, found in wet grassland, rush-pasture, fen-meadow, ditches, tall-herb fen and damp woodland margins. A dwarf form (var. congesta), known from exposed coastal grassland in E. Kent, Caithness, Sutherland and Shetland, apparently retains this character in cultivation.

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 soapwort, it was used for washing.

Ragged Robins bloom from May to August, occasionally later, and butterflies and long-tongued bees feed on the flowers nectar. Nevertheless, the flowers are visited by many types of insects, and can be characterized by a generalized pollination syndrome.

It can be a good garden plant in the right soil and even has several cultivars.

S. vulgaris or Bladder Campion and S. uniflora or Sea Campion

S. vulgaris is a perennial herb found in a wide range of soils in open and grassy habitats, including cultivated and abandoned arable fields, rough pasture, roadside verges, quarries, gravel-pits, railway banks, walls and waste places.

The Bladder Campion (S. vulgaris) as well as the similar lower growing Sea Campion or (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.

Edible Uses:

  • Young shoots and leaves – raw or cooked.
  • The young leaves are sweet and very agreeable in salads.
  • The cooked young shoots, harvested when about 5cm long, have a flavour similar to green peas but with a slight bitterness. This bitterness can be reduced by blanching the shoots as they appear from the ground.
  • When pureed it is said to rival the best spinach purees.
  • The leaves can also be finely chopped and added to salads. The leaves should be used before the plant starts to flower.

Some caution is advised:

Although no mention of toxicity has been seen for this species, it does contain saponins. Although toxic, these substances are very poorly absorbed by the body and so tend to pass through without causing harm. They are also broken down by thorough cooking. Saponins are found in many plants, including several that are often used for food, such as certain beans. It is advisable not to eat large quantities of food that contain saponins. Saponins are much more toxic to some creatures, such as fish, and hunting tribes have traditionally put large quantities of them in streams, lakes etc in order to stupefy or kill the fish[K].

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 or Sticky Catchfly

S. viscaria is 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.

This plant 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.

Silene armeria, a neophyte as seen and photographed in Oddingley Road, Northfield by Mike Poulton

Silene armeria or Sweet-William Catchfly

is a neophyte species which has been cultivated in Britain since before 1800. It was recorded from the wild by 1840, and its overall distribution is stable.

S. nutans or Nottingham catchfly

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.

As a conclusion two more pictures of beautiful members of the Caryophyllaceae found in the Midlands!

Leave a Reply