Scientific Name: Silene virginica
Common Name: Fire Pink
(The information for this species page was gathered in part by Ms. Jackie Shane for Biology 220W, Spring 2009 at Penn State New Kensington)
Appearance and Location
Fire pink (Silene virginica) is a short lived, but brilliantly colored, flowering perennial found in open deciduous woodlands throughout North America. The plant stands one to two feet tall and bears its five petaled, bright red, tubular flowers on tall but relatively weak stems that often bend down and lay across the more basal, dark green, long, oppositely oriented leaves. “Fire” refers to the intensity of the red flower petals although the plant's predilection for disturbed sites (eroding soil banks, areas with scattered tree cover) could also suggest a “post-fire” etymology.
Fire pink is quite common in the woodlands of Western Pennsylvania. On William Hamilton’s and Deborah Sillman’s Baker Trail hike in 2010, fire pink was the only flower seen on every day of the hike. It is, though, considered uncommon to rare in many parts of its broad, North American range.
The stems of fire pink have hairs and small glands that produce sticky exudates. Small insects can be trapped on these “natural fly paper” stems. Recognition of this insect trapping potential is reflected in a second common name for fire pink, “catchfly.” The purpose of these sticky stems seems to be to keep small insects like ants from climbing up the plant stem to rob the flower of its energetically expensive nectar.
Fire pink blooms from April to August. This prolonged blooming time is another possible reason why this species was so frequently observed in the aforementioned, May to July hike on the Baker Trail. Each plant has distinct male and female flowers, but the male flowers produce their pollen before their own female flowers develop mature stigmas. In this way, the potential for self-pollination is greatly reduced.
The nectar rich flowers attract butterflies and other insects but are especially visited by hummingbirds which act as the flower’s prime pollinators. The red color of the flowers is thought to be an adaptation to reduce bee pollination in favor of the more efficient pollination efforts of hummingbirds (larger amounts of pollen transferred in each visit). Bees are not able to see the color red and, so, are not visually attracted to the red flowers. Some bee visits may occur, however, because of the olfactory attractions of the flower and nectar scents.
Seeds form within green to tan capsules within the flower. They may be dropped to the ground beneath the parental plant or may be consumed (and distributed) by a wide variety of birds including juncos, pine siskins, water pipits, horned larks, and a number of species of sparrows.