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U.S. Forest Service

Plant of the Week

Map of the United States showing states. States are colored green where the species may be found. Silene caroliniana var. wherryi range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Wherry’s catchfly (Silene caroliniana var. wherryi). Wherry’s catchfly (Silene caroliniana var. wherryi).

Wherry’s catchfly (Silene caroliniana var. wherryi). Wherry’s catchfly (Silene caroliniana var. wherryi).

Wherry’s catchfly (Silene caroliniana var. wherryi). Wherry’s catchfly (Silene caroliniana var. wherryi) stem.

Wherry's Catchfly (Silene caroliniana var. wherryi)

By Dave Moore

Wherry’s catchfly is a showy, perennial, woodland wildflower that occurs in acid soils in open woodlands under a semi-open canopy. It can be found in certain parts of the Missouri Ozarks, as well as Mississippi, North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

It is a low-growing plant with a mounding habit. It is about 12 to 15 inches wide and 6 to 8 inches in height. A single plant may sometimes produce 50 to 100 rose-pink flowers, each of which is about 1½ inches across. Each of the flowers has 5 petals (with a pair of appendages at the base of the petals) as well as 10 stamens and 3 styles (characteristic of the Genus) protruding from the floral tube.

Wherry’s catchfly belongs to the group of plants that are collectively referred to as “catchflies.” The common name “catchfly” refers to a section of stem in many species that is very viscid (sticky), and when touched has the feel of honey. While folklore holds that this part of the stem can catch flies and other small insects, more likely an adaptive mechanism has evolved as a means to help protect the plant against insects that come to eat the plant or lay their eggs on it.

Wherry’s catchfly is one of three varieties within the Silene caroliniana complex, and is the only variety west of the Mississippi River. The other two varieties both have glandular hairs on the calyces and occur to the east of Missouri. The var. pensylvanica differs from var. caroliniana in its basal leaves that are glabrous except along the margins and undersurface main veins (vs. moderately to densely pubescent with glandular and non-glandular hairs), and tapered to a relatively slender petiole (vs. a winged petiole) (Yatskievych 2006).

The Genus name Silene is derived from the Greek work “sialon” (=saliva), in reference to the gummy secretions on the stems. Another derivation of the name Silene is from the mythological Silenus (referring to the viscid excretions of many species in the Genus) who was the intoxicated foster-father of Bacchus (the God of wine). Silenus, in his intoxicated state, was said to be covered with foam, much like the glandular secretions on the stems of many species in this Genus.

Due to the showy nature of many of the species in this genus, there are about 650 (or more) species of Silene worldwide, and the genus occurs naturally on five of the seven continents (it is not known to occur naturally in Australia or Antarctica). The species name “Wherryi” is in reference to Dr. Edgar Theodore Wherry (September 10, 1885 to May 14, 1982), an American scientist distinguished by high levels of achievement in three widely different fields of science: geology-mineralogy, chemistry-crystallography, and botany-ecology.

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