Ragged robin (Silene flos-cuculi)
Dear Readers, the overgrown patch at the side of Muswell Hill Playing Fields continues to be an unexpected source of interesting ‘weeds’ – in amongst the red campion and the comfrey, I spotted some ragged robin, a plant that I have been wanting to write about for about five years. What a strange, exotic flower it has! Looked at closely, each petal is divided into four lobes: which gives the flower the appearance of a group of small pink men with very long legs joining hands for ‘Ring-a-ring-of-roses’.
Ragged Robin (Photo One)
Ragged robin is often described as a bog plant, and I suspect that this one is doing so well because under all the plant life there is a drainage ditch. It is a member of the Caryophyllaceae family, otherwise known as the campions and chickweeds. The family also includes carnations and the Antarctic pearlwort, which is one of only two flowering plants that survive in Antarctica. This latter plant hunkers close to the ground to avoid the freezing winds, and produces these tiny yellow flowers – it reminds me of the moss campion that I often see in the Alps, where the climate can be almost as inhospitable.
Antarctic Pearlwort (Colobanthus_quitensis)(Photo Two)
But, as usual, I digress.
The plant is dedicated to St Barnabas, whose feast day is 11th June. The pink flowers would have been seen amongst the hay which would have had its first cut at around this time (the Latin name ‘flos-cuculi’ means ‘cuckoo call’, which is also a reference to the time of flowering. . St Barnabas is the saint who is said to protect against hailstorms, which would have been devastating during haymaking season. Regular readers will know that practically every wild plant that I write about has some kind of dire warning concerning what will happen if the flower is brought indoors attached to it. Ragged robin is said to cause thunderstorms if picked, which connects rather nicely with the St Barnabas/hailstorms link. How anxiously our ancestors, without the benefit of fairly accurate short-term weather forecasts, must have watched for signs of incoming tempests that would ruin their hay harvest!
The name ‘robin’ was often associated with evil and mischievous goblins, which would have been another reason to leave the plant alone. On the other hand, all bets are off when it comes to romance, as if a gentleman placed a ragged robin in his pocket and it survived, it indicated that he would be lucky in love. What ‘survived’ looks like is anybody’s guess, as this looks like a rather delicate plant to me.
In the Victorian language of flowers, the plant is said to signify ‘ardour, aversion and wit’, which sounds like quite a tricky combination to pull off, even if you have a couple of wilted ragged robins stashed about your person.
In Shakespeare’s time ragged robin (which sounds like a very Shakespearian name) was actually known as crowflower, and as such it appears in Gertrude’s speech describing Ophelia’s suicide:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them.
Medicinally, ragged robin has been used to treat snakebite and in infusion as a treatment for wounds. It has also been used to alleviate migraine in some countries in the Mediterranean. Like all campions, ragged robin contains chemicals called saponins in its roots, which have been used to make soap in the past – one closely-related species (Saponaria officinalis) is known as ‘soapwort’. As a result of all those soapy chemicals, it has no culinary uses that I’ve been able to find, although one site did enigmatically refer to the root as ‘tasting like wasabi’.
Ragged robin is a good plant for pollinators, in particular long-tongued bees such as the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) which can reach right into the depths of the flower. In the photo below, I was initially stumped – is that a hoverfly with a bumblebee’s backside? I think there might actually be two insects – a hoverfly at the front, and a bumblebee feeding behind. Either way, it proves that this is a great plant for insects.
Insects on ragged robin (Photo Three)
Now, here’s something that I found very interesting, and it harks back to my earlier mention of the Victorian language of flowers. In her book ‘Women Poets in the Victorian Era‘, Dr Fabienne Moine refers to a poem called ‘The Flower Girl’ by one Mrs Cobbold. In it, the flower girl of the title offers flowers to the passing gents, summing them up with a quick glance in much the same way that merchants in street markets from Kiev to Marrakesh are able to tell what language to use when approaching their potential customers simply by looking at their clothes and body language.
I have always thought of the language of flowers as being a rather languid and prissy way to think about plants, but this poem has some real bite to it – there is ‘ardour, aversion and wit’ in it. And I love that it has been written from the point of view of a feisty young woman, who obviously brooks no nonsense. The poem has been seen as a possible inspiration for Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, but I think it stands very nicely on its own.
The Flower Girl by Mrs Cobbold (circa 1813)
Come buy, come buy my mystic flowers
All ranged with due consideration
And cull’d in Fancy’s fairy bowers
To suit each age and every station.
For those who late in life would tarry
I’ve snowdrops, Winter’s children cold;
And those who seek for wealth to marry
May buy the flaunting marigold.
I’ve ragwort, ragged-robins too,
Cheap flowers for those of low condition;
For bachelors I’ve buttons blue
And crown imperials for ambition.
For sportsmen keen who range the lea
I’ve pheasant’s eye and sprigs of heather;
For courtiers with the supple knee
I’ve climbing plants and prince’s feather.
For tall thin fobs I keep the rush;
For pedants still am nightshade weeding;
For rakes I’ve devil in the bush;
For sighing Stephens, love-lies-bleeding.
But fairest blooms affection’s hand
For constancy and worth disposes
And gladly weaves at your command
A wreath of amaranth and roses.
The Flower Girl (1913) Eugene de Blaas (Public Domain)
Photo One from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=557700
Photo Two by By Liam Quinn – Flickr: Antarctic Pearlwort, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15525940
Photo Three by Clint Bud from https://www.flickr.com/photos/58827557@N06/42034065484