Red Campion, Fairies and Snakes

Silene dioica

The Red Campion (Silene dioica) Fairy. Taken from 'Flower Fairies of the Wayside’ by Cicely Mary Barker (1948)


Greek methodology tells that the aged and merry God of the woodlands Silenus gave his name to the Red campion, Silene dioica, which blooms on campus in the wilderness and in shaded areas by the lower lake. This attractive plant can be found between March and October where it serves as an important source of nectar for long-tongued insects such as bumblebees and, according to folklore, guards the honey stores of fiercely defensive fairies.




Silene dioica

Red campion with buff-tailed bumblebee. Photo (c) Alan Mackenzie (with permission)

Close up, the flower head consists of five deeply notched, bright red-pink petals, thought by some to resemble a snake’s tongue with an inner ring of white flaps and a purple-brown calyx tube. Unlike Silene the second part of the name, dioica, has biological significance meaning ‘two houses’ and refers to the fact that each plant possesses the flowers of one sex only. Dioecious flowers are also displayed by the White campion (Silene latifolia) which interbreeds with Red campion on campus to produce the hybrid Pink campion (Silene x hampeana). Traditionally the crushed seeds of Red campion were used to cure snakebites, however, perhaps for fear of inciting the wrath of the fairies, this herbal remedy has long been abandoned. 

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