Plant of the Week

Silene subciliata range map.
Silene subciliata range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Silene subciliata.
Scarlet Catchfly (Silene Subciliata B.L. Robins.). Photo by Thomas Philipps

Scarlet Catchfly (Silene subciliata B.L. Robins.)

By Thomas C. Philipps

Silene subciliata is the only scarlet-red flowering catchfly in southeast Texas. It is entire, oblong elliptic petals and lack of pubescence distinguishes it from other red-flowered Silene species. An erect perennial species, it can reach a height of 4 feet, has thin stems with opposite, scattered, narrow, grass-like leaves, and flowers between August and mid-September. It is restricted to the West Gulf Coastal Plain, occurring in southeast Texas and adjacent southwest Louisiana only. The only currently known populations on the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas occur in Fox Hunter’s Hill and the Stark Tract, both on the southern Sabine National Forest where it is found in dry-mesic mixed hardwood forests on well drained but not xeric sandy soil. It is most often found on slight or steep slopes in the ecotones between streamside zones and pine-bluejack oak sandhills, which were historically maintained by natural low-intensity ground fires.

This species is currently found more abundantly in man-disturbed sites than in more natural habitats. A potential threat to these sites is a change in management activities that may alter the habitat. This early successional species requires disturbances to create open sites. Disturbances such as fire, mowing, and windthrow are needed to maintain open habitat. As succession proceeds, population decline will follow.

Although Silene subciliata can be locally abundant, it is a rather narrow endemic with a limited overall range. Catchfly is so called because it generally has sticky bands around the stem between the upper leaves in which small insects are often caught. However, this is not an insectivorous plant. It does not digest the insects. The genus name Silene comes from Silenus, a member of the older race of satyrs in Greek mythology. He had befriended the young Dionysus while he lived with Nysa and the other Nyseides (nymphs also known as the Hyades). Silenus became foster-father, tutor, and in later years, a follower of the wild child and last god to join the Olympians. On one excursion, the drunken Silenus wandered away from the group of revelers and fell asleep in the rose garden of the king of Phrygia. The country people bound the old man with wreaths of flowers and took him to the king. The king recognized the prisoner. Silenus was cleaned up and treated to ten days of hospitality. Then the king returned him to Dionysus.

Dionysus was so grateful for the kind treatment of his 'father' that he granted the king one wish. When the greedy king realized that even food turned to gold at the touch of his lips, Midas begged a second wish - removal of the first wish. Dionysus sent Midas to bathe in the source of the River Pactolus. The river was said ever after to have abundant gold in its sands.

One supposes that Linnaeus when viewing the swollen, hairy calyx of a catchfly flower thought of the intoxicated and portly Silenus who could only be captured by mortals when bound by flowers.

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