Fire Pink Dreams

Riverdave’s Journal

July 4, 2010

Early summer is the season to observe one of our area’s most attractive wild flowers.  A bright red, five peddled flower known as Fire Pink  or Silene virginica, often occurs on the drier, south facing slopes of the Eno River.  Found in clumps amid rocky areas with poor soil above the river, I am well acquainted with a hundred foot stretch of river bank where there is a profusion of these plants, making it a very magical spot for summer meditation.

The name Pink is often misunderstood.  This does not refer to a color,  but to the notch that is “pinked” at the end of the petals that flare out from this perennial's tubular base. Dazzling  blossoms form in loose clusters on slender long stems. Eventually each flower is replaced by a seed capsule with six small teeth along its upper rim. This gift provides sustenance for native sparrows and juncos.

Another feature of this plant is its remarkably sticky stem.  It’s Latin botanical name, Silene, means saliva, or sticky substance. Therefore this genus of plants is sometimes known by the common name of Catchfly. If you run your fingers along its stem you will notice its protruding sticky hairs.  Some authorities claim this discourages inefficient insect predators from reaching the flower while others suggest that some members of the Silene genus may actually be carnivorous.  

But why the need for such a conspicuous red flower?  Fire Pink’s early blooming preempts its fellow Eno red compatriot the late summer Cardinal flower. Both plants attract ruby throated hummingbirds and large butterflies to their nectar for pollination.  But could there be some more subtle floral essence that attracts humans to these eye-popping floral rubies?

Henry David Thoreau twice mentions his curiosity about Silene antirrhina or Sleepy Catchfly, another native Silene species found in both “estimable” communities of Concord and Durham.  In journal entries of June 1852 and ‘53, commenting on this plant’s mainly nocturnal blossom, Thoreau noted “Its opening in the night chiefly is a fact which interests and piques me.”  

Still another fascinating variety of the same theme, Silene undulata is indigenous to the river valleys of the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. This species is considered a teacher plant by the native Khosa population, a Bantu speaking people that have produced the likes of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. This small white flower, with five notched petals as is found on the Eno’s Fire Pink, is scientifically known as an oneirogen or dream inducing plant. 

In Khosa tradition, a young shaman in training walks down to the river’s edge, strips of his or her clothing and wades into the water until submerged.  He descends to an underwater mound of white clay that is guarded by a snake.  The novice covers both face and body with the white clay, and if found worthy, passes by the snake into an underwater chamber where an ancestral shamaness awaits to instruct her apprentice in the ways of herbs and healing.  

Three days later, the novice is found floating motionless in the river by his people,  covered with white clay and looking like a disinterred corpse.  He is taken to a hut and offered a tea made from the root bark of Silene undulata. The herb induces him to recall what he was taught by the underwater ancestral shamaness. Thus begins his new function as healer and community herbalist. Everyone celebrates the successful initiation with an extended ceremony of sorghum beer drinking and nonstop dancing.

It is doubtful that Thoreau had specific knowledge of the oneirogenic qualities of the African Silene. But perhaps his curiosity about his local Silene’s unusual night blooming habits may reveal that he was intuitively on track in grasping the Pink flower’s potential as a botanical aid in the incubation of human dreams.

Finding the brilliant Fire Pink scattered along the banks of my hometown Eno River has always induced a corresponding subtle impression upon the soil of my own subconscious.  Like Thoreau, this noteworthy display of our native Silene “piques me.” Perhaps, if invited, Fire Pink will show up in our dreams to instruct our community in the ways of local herbs and healing ... 

Photo by Riverdave: fire pink along the river at West Point on the Eno Park in Durham