Catchfly, or Silene, has been a subject of scientific study for more than a century. From Darwin to Mendel to Antonivics, evolutionary biologists, plant ecologists, botanists, and geneticists have used these flowering plants to study sex determination. Some Silene species are also popular landscape plants in temperate climate gardens across the Northern Hemisphere. In the language of flowers, Silene blooms carry the symbolic meaning of gentleness, youthful love, or — less commonly — a snare.


The Meaning & Symbolism of Catchfly Flowers (Silene) – The Essentials

To the Victorians, a gift of Silene blossoms could have several meanings. The pink or red flowers symbolize gentleness or youthful love. Less commonly, catchfly blooms may symbolize a snare, perhaps due to their ability to trap pollen and small insects.


About Catchfly Flowers (Silene)

About Catchfly Flowers (Silene)

Family, Genus, and Taxonomy

Catchfly, also known as none-so-pretty, sweet William, or campion, belongs to the Silene genus. The largest genus in the Caryophyllaceae family, Silene contains almost 900 species.

Botanical Characteristics, Colors, Fragrances

S. armeria, commonly known as catchfly, grows as a perennial in temperate climates and an annual in colder regions. Plants grow to 1.5 feet tall and bloom with flat-topped, rounded clusters of red to pink flowering blossoms, each with five petals.

Cymes appear atop upright stems with gray-green foliage. Stems are often coated with a sticky substance that can trap insects and pollen.

Catchfly flowers don’t have much detectable fragrance.

History & Origins of Catchfly Flowers

Silene species are found throughout the Northern hemisphere. Native to North America and Europe, today these flowers are naturalized across temperate zones.

Certain species have long been the subject of scientific study. Research in plant ecology, sex determination, evolutionary biology, speciation, and genetics have centered on Silene for more than a century.

Popular Catchfly Flower Types, Species, and Cultivars

While there are almost 900 species in the Silene genus, several varieties are commonly found in the landscape and growing in the wild. These include:

  • S. armeria or sweet William catchfly, a European native that blooms with pink flowers and grows as an annual
  • S. regia or royal catchfly, a 4-foot-tall perennial that flowers with bright red blossoms
  • S. virginica or fire pink, a North American native that blooms in spring
  • S. vulgaris or bladder campion has white-pink blossoms
  • S. diocia or red campion grows across Europe, North Africa, and western Asia
  • ‘Clifford Moore’ catchfly, with yellow-edged foliage and pink flowers
  • ‘Robin Whitebreast’ grows as a groundcover and blooms with white flowers
  • ‘Sticky Catchfly’ (Viscaria vulgaris) reddish-purple bloom that is relatively small and clustered on a taller stem.

Etymological Meaning

Silene was first described by Linnaeus. The name harkens back to the Greek deity Silenus, who was known for wine-making and drunkenness. Silenus is often depicted as covered with sticky foam (his name comes from the Greek sialon or saliva), which references the sticky substance that sometimes covers Silene stems.

Though this sticky substance doesn’t actually attract files, it can trap small insects. The name “catchfly” and the associated meaning of “snare” stems from this feature.

What Regions are Catchfly Flowers Native to?

Catchfly flowers are native to Europe and North America. They’ve naturalized in temperate regions around the world.

When are Catchfly Flowers in Season?

Most catchfly varieties bloom in summer, though some bloom in late spring.


Uses and Benefits of Catchfly Flowers

Uses and Benefits of Catchfly Flowers

Species in the Silene genus have long been a subject of study. From evolutionary biology to genetics, ecologists to botanists, catchfly plants have played a role in research for more than a century.

These plants have been used to advance knowledge about speciation, sex determination, invasive species, host-pathogen interaction, pollution, ecology and mitochondrial genome identification.

Silene varieties have many uses in traditional medicines. These include:

  • S. filos-cuculii used to treat headache and malaria
  • S. italica used to treat sore throat
  • S. vulgaris used to treat bronchitis and asthma
  • S. nigrescens root used to prevent lice and dandruff

Catchfly has other practical uses. When simmered, S. dioica or red campion roots make a soap substitute. In regions of the Mediterranean, such as Italy and Spain, the foliage of bladder campion is added to many dishes. Leaves can be eaten both cooked and raw.

While there aren’t reports of toxicity to humans or pets, red campion does contain saponins which can be difficult to digest.

Catchfly flowers attract butterflies, flies, bees and other pollinators.


Catchfly Flower Meaning & Symbolism

Catchfly Flowers Meaning & Symbolism

In the Victorian language of flowers, red and pink catchfly blossoms carried the symbolic meaning of gentleness and youthful love. Less commonly, the flowers may symbolize a snare, likely due to the stem’s sticky nature that can trap insects.

The Cultural Significance of Catchfly Flowers

In some cultural traditions, silene has important spiritual applications. In the Eastern Cape region of South Africa, S. undulata is what’s known as an ubulawu or “dream plant.” Here, the amaXhosa people use dreams as a means of communication with their ancestors. Silene facilitates that communication. Diviners use the roots of S. undulata to create a potion that influences dreams and acts as an aid in religious rituals.

To the Victorians, catchfly flowers symbolized youthful love and gentleness. It’s thought that the red flowers were once worn in the buttonholes of young, unmarried men to signal their bachelor status.

The poet Lord Alfred Tennyson references catchfly flowers in The Last Tournament, in the lines: “And glowing in all colours, the live grass, Rose-campion, bluebell, kingcup, poppy, glanced…”


Suitable Gifting Occasions for Catchfly Flowers

Catchfly’s lovely shades of pink and red make these flowers a perfect addition to floral gifts for a loved one, for an anniversary, or any romantic occasion.


How to Grow and Care for Catchfly Flowers at Home

How to Grow and Care for Catchfly Flowers at Home

Catchfly flowers are easy to grow in moderate climates. When planted in the right conditions, catchfly plants are pest-resistant, low-maintenance, and drought-resistant once established.

Catchfly is a great choice for beds, borders, rock gardens, cottage gardens, meadows and containers. They’re hardy in USDA zone 5 to 8.

Catchfly thrives in sites with partial shade to full sun exposure, and well-drained soil. A neutral to slightly alkaline pH is best. Catchfly prefers slightly moist to dry conditions, and only requires frequent watering in hot or dry conditions.

Add a 1- to 3-inch layer of mulch around root zones to help maintain moisture and protect against winter cold. Feed once or twice per season with a general purpose fertilizer.


Wrap-up

Catchfly adds a lovely color and texture to any floral gift or garden landscape. These fascinating flowers’ long history as subjects of scientific research, and their symbolic significance make silene an ideal addition to bouquets, arrangements, and gardens alike.


Catchfly Flower FAQ:

In the language of flowers, catchfly flowers symbolize gentleness, young love or (less commonly) a snare.

In temperate climates, catchfly grows as a perennial. In colder regions, it grows as an annual.

Silene is not included in the USDA National Invasive Species Information Center’s comprehensive list of invasive species.

Silene tends to have a long bloom period that stretches from mid- to late summer. Some species, such as S. virginica start blooming in spring.

Silene grows in full to sun to partial shade. In hot climates, this plant prefers partial sun to partial shade.


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Author

Linsay is an American copywriter based in the Pacific Northwest with a background in academic writing and research. Linsay holds Master's degree in both Anthropology and Library and Information Sciences and has written for numerous national and international publications including USA Today, SFGATE, Hunker, and The Bump across an array of topics in the gardening, green living, and travel sectors. When she's not writing, you'll usually find Linsay reading, kayaking, sailing, snowboarding, or working in her garden.

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