Southern Pink

Silene laciniata

red flower with long skinny petals
Photo credit: George Bredehoft | Annie's Canyon | July 2016

In spite of its name, southern pink (Silene laciniata) is one of the few truly red flowers in the Reserve. It is also one of the more photogenic. The name may come from the ragged edges of the petals which appear to have been snipped with pinking shears.

Another common name, catchfly, comes from the sticky substance on stems and leaves that traps small insects such as ants and flies. It is thought that this adaptation saves the nectar in the flowers for larger insects such as bees and butterflies, which are more effective cross-pollinators.

Other Common Names:

Indian pink, Mexican pink, fringed Mexican pink, fringed Indian pink, cardinal catchfly; catchfly

Description 2,4,23,26,59

Southern pink is a short-lived perennial herb, usually less than two feet high, with one to several stems from a thick taproot. Leaves are rather sparse, lanceolate and opposite at swollen stem nodes. Lower leaves may reach 4.5 inches; upper leaves are smaller. The plant is covered with glandular hairs that exude a sticky substance.

A few flowers are arranged in a loose cluster at the ends of branches. Five sepals are fused along most of their length, forming a narrow urn-shaped calyx with five roundly triangular lobes at the top. Flowers are bright red. There are five petals. Each has a long narrow base that flares outward at the top of the calyx and is deeply divided into linear fingers at the outer end; our plants most commonly have four lobes; often the two in the middle are longer than the others. The entire corolla is about one inch (2½ cm) across and has the appearance of a ragged fringe. Below the fringe, at the flower’s throat, each petal has two small red appendages that form a collar around the throat. Flowers are bisexual with ten stamens about as long as the petals, and which tend to be grouped at one side of the flower. There is one sausage-shaped ovary, which is pale yellow-green or green at the top and has three whitish styles. The major flower time is May to July,1 although an unusually wet summer in 2015 prolonged the flowering into September.

The fruit is a dry capsule, about 5/8 inch (1.6 cm) long. The developing fruit is obscured by the persistent calyx until just before maturity when the green ovary can be seen pushing out from the enclosing calyx. The mature fruit splits at the top into six triangular teeth, exposing numerous small red-brown seeds.

plant stem with two narrow leaves on either side

Sparse leaves are opposite on stem | Holmwood Canyon | May 2016

red flower with long skinny petals

Deeply fringed petals; ten stamens | Photo credit: Denise Stillinger | June 2009

dried out seed pod on stem

Seed capsules; note mature ovary emerging from upper capsule | Holmwood Canyon | July 2015

Distribution 7,89

Southern pink is native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, generally below 10,000 feet (3000 m). In California it occurs in coastal strand vegetation, coastal sage scrub, chaparral and oak woodlands, along the coast and on the eastern side of the Central Valley.

In the Reserve, southern pink is not common along the trails. It appears to prefer the higher coastal sage scrub and chaparral. There are a few plants along the trail in Holmwood Canyon, just above the old blue gums, and it has been found near Annie’s Canyon. Otherwise, most plants are scattered through the chaparral in the hills above the trails, where they are generally inaccessible.

Classification 2,11,44,143

Southern pink is a dicot herb in the carnation, or pink, family (Caryophyllaceae), a family that occurs primarily in temperate climates. Members of this family have simple flowers carried singly or in loose clusters on jointed stems. Leaves are usually undivided. Typical flowers are bisexual and symmetrical, with five (or no) petals which are often notched at the ends, five (rarely four) sepals and five or ten stamens. The fruit is a one-chambered capsule.

The carnation family includes well known ornamental flowers such as carnations, pinks, bouncing bets, and baby’s breath. It also includes some well-known weeds such as the chickweeds. Several other members of this family have been reported from the Reserve.48 One that bears no resemblance at all to southern pink is tread lightly (Cardionema ramosissimum).

In California, there are two subspecies of southern pink. Ours is ssp. laciniata (sometimes called ssp. major)48; the other is ssp. californica. These subspecies are distinguished by the shape of their leaves and fruit,2 and are separated geographically with ssp. laciniata being limited to the southern part of the state; there is a region of overlap near Point Conception.7

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
flower with skinny petals blooming from pod

Deeply fringed petals | Holmwood Canyon | May 2010

seed pod with flower blooming

Holmwood Canyon | June 2015

red flower with long skinny petals

Holmwood Canyon | April 2014

Ecology 23,26,35

Southern pink is liberally supplied with glandular hairs that exude a sticky substance. It is thought that this impedes and deters small crawling insects, which are looking for a share of the nectar but which, because of their small size and limited “walking” range are not efficient cross-pollinators. This is the origin of the common name “catchfly” which southern pink shares with several other species in the Silene genus.  Southern pink is pollinated by larger winged insects and hummingbirds.35 (The Chumash name for southern pink means “hummingbird sucks it”.15

plant with multiple red flower with long skinny petals

Holmwood Canyon | May 2010

close up of ant on plant stem

Glandular hairs may deter small insects | Holmwood Canyon | May 2010

red flower with long skinny petals

Photo credit: Denise Stillinger | June 2009

Human Uses 15

Chumash women brewed a tea from southern pink to regulate aspects of their menstrual cycle. The tea was made with water or wine, depending upon the specific need.

red flower with long skinny petals

Holmwood Canyon | May 2010

long stems with a red flower with long skinny petals

Holmwood Canyon | April 2014

multiple red flower with long skinny petals

Holmwood Canyon | May 2010

Interesting Facts  

It is often explained that the common name “pink” does not refer to the color of the flower but to the deep, sharp cuts on the petals which look like they were cut with pinking shears.11 This is consistent with the etymology of the word “pink” which may come from an old English word meaning to prick or pierce.291There is, however, some uncertainty as to whether the flower or the shears were named first; it is possible that the shears were named because their cut resembles the jagged edges of a carnation.41 The word for the color appears to have come later, perhaps from a pink member of this family.291

red flower with long skinny petals

Holmwood Canyon | July 2015

base of flower with narrow green leaves

Holmwood Canyon | June 2015

red flower with long skinny petals

Holmwood Canyon | April 2014

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