The Fire Pinks Are Here

Published 2:13 pm Thursday, June 18, 2015

The spring ephemerals are long gone and the great summer green out is well underway. There’re still plenty of wildflowers blooming, but by this time of the year, I confess, I’m desperate to find a flower that’s bright, bold, and not yellow.  Red would be just perfect.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many bright red or crimson wildflowers. The eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is mostly red with some yellow, but it’s not a knock your socks off red. Neither is scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) nor our native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). Both cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and fire pink (Silene virginica), however, definitely qualify. They’re such a bright crimson that they’re impossible to miss, and I love both.

Cardinal flower is named for the crimson colored robes that cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church wear. It’s a favorite of hummingbirds and will bloom later this summer. Fire pink is blooming right now and can be found throughout our area. It’s a weedy, clumping, short-lived perennial that can grow to be several feet tall, but usually topples over onto neighboring plants. Fire pink favors rocky slopes, dry, open woodlands, and meadows with poor soil.

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Like other members of the carnation family, fire pink flowers generally have five petals that are notched or “pinked,” hence the common name pink. Think pinked as in your grandma’s pinking shears, not the color. Other common members of the carnation family include chickweed and bladder campion. If you look carefully at the flowers of both of these plants, they have petals that are so deeply notched or pinked that they look as if they have twice as many petals as they actually have.

The fire pink produces very sweet nectar that is much loved by ruby-throated hummingbirds, which are the main pollinators of this plant. To a lesser extent, syrphid flies and small bee also serve as pollinators. This plant has developed an interesting mechanism for protecting its nectar from hungry ants. The stems and calyx are covered with very sticky hairs that trap ants and other small insects as they climb the stems to reach the nectar.

The fire pink is getting some much deserved recognition this year. It’s the 2015 Wildflower of the Year in North Carolina and is being promoted as a dramatic addition to the home garden and as an excellent energy source for hummingbirds. The fire pink isn’t hard to grow as long as it’s planted in well-drained soil in an area with dappled shade to full sun. The fire pink can be propagated from both seeds and cuttings. Since this plant is short lived – only a year or so – it’s a good idea to start new plants every year.

There aren’t many bright red flowers in Mother Nature’s garden, so it’s always a treat to find one of these beauties in the woods. They’re sometimes hard to find here in our area, but are generally plentiful up on the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you stumble across one, the shear exuberance of the fire pink’s color is bound to make you smile. Happy hiking.

fire pink (Silene virginica)

fire pink (Silene virginica)