Scarlet Pimpernel

june, horseshoe canyon ranch, arkansas,


After returning from Greenville, we were home for about a week before it was time for the annual family vacation with my in-laws. I know that for a lot of people the words "vacation" and "in-laws" in the same sentence can be cause for nightmares, but on this occasion, especially this particular year, I was genuinely enthusiastic about both the company and the destination. This was our first year going to an all-activities-included family vacation destination—meaning no more deciding which kid-friendly restaurant had the shortest line for tables, no more deciding where to hunt for rocks with my husband, which hiking trail was suitable both for adult exercise and minimal child whining, whether to stay together all day or split up, and what time we would meet for a meal. Plus, my in-laws had selected a place that seemed ideal particularly for me, the horse-enchanted Kentucky girl: Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, with daily trail rides on horses matched to the rider's skill level. At the same time, my husband could rock climb all day in good company, and my daughters could choose kid-friendly activities with adult supervision whose name was not "Watch this, Mom!"

Many things that week went well. Emily found a friend to play with, Hazel took up with her younger cousin, and I got to ride all I wanted on a horse named Gunner who was, as promised, very well matched for my skills. In all, our time there seemed nearly enchanted, with only a few ticks to mar the experience. So, given that it was my lucky week, it is perhaps not surprising that one evening, while sitting on the lodge steps waiting for the dinner bell, I found one of my favorite weeds.

The common name, scarlet pimpernel, seems incredibly dramatic. It is, in fact, the title of a book by Baroness Orczy, described on Google Books as "an irresistible blend of romance, intrigue, and suspense." To me, the name "scarlet pimpernel" sounds as if it should belong either to a colleague of Zorro's or some large red trumpet of a tropical flower. Instead, scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) is a weed, and a fairly nondescript one at that, at least from the distant view of full adult height. This is not a weed worth noticing in a cornfield, because it can't grow in the shade of mature corn. It blooms only in sunshine, prompting another common name, Poor Man's Weatherglass. Despite that additional grand entry of a name, it is a plant that could hardly outcompete moss, much less reduce the growth of anything cultivated in a garden or farm field. This plant is a weed, I think, only because it grows in places where no attention is paid to it—according to Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, in "waste places."

This humble introduction to this little plant, though, does scarlet pimpernel no justice. If this rich orange flower with red and purple streaks, punctuated by bright yellow pollen, were simply larger, it would be cultivated in gardens worldwide. It would be sold by the flat, like pansies. But scarlet pimpernel is tiny—about a quarter of an inch across—and its flowers are striking only to those willing to stick their noses in the grass or pick them and look with reading glasses. One of many flowers celebrated in Cicely Mary Barker's series on flower fairies, this one seems particularly appropriate there because it is so perfect and miniature in its beauty.

I first saw scarlet pimpernel while lunching in a courtyard one summer in Ithaca, New York. At that time, my job involved statistics and hours at the computer screen, and I tried to get outdoors every minute I was away from work. I sat down on some steps and noticed this lovely little flower that I had never seen before. The next day I

came back with a flower guide to identify it, and the name made me smile at how appropriate it was. What audacious colors! I had been almost surprised to find it in my flower guide, because it looked rare and exotic.

I began to think of the plant as a "she," with appropriate first and last names. Though I knew that "she" is as bisexual as most flowering plants, somehow the designation fit her. She is a hermaphrodite botanically but had chosen her gender through her petaled raiment.

So, this summer in Arkansas, there she was, Miss Scarlet Pimpernel, at the base of the lodge steps at the ranch where we were spending a week. This ranch is home to a couple hundred goats and about forty horses, all of which roam freely at night outside the lodges and cabins, keeping their favorite plants well trimmed. Thanks to the grazing animals, the ranch's mowing requirements were seemingly fairly minimal, so I don't know whether scarlet pimpernel likes or dislikes being mowed. I also don't know if it is a coincidence that both of my first two meetings with scarlet pimpernel were next to steps, as I have never seen a book categorizing those plants that "grow near outdoor stairs." I only know that the plant must not be tasty to either horses or goats. Goats are known to be fairly indiscriminate grazers. The cartoon stereotype of goats eating tin cans and other random items isn't entirely true, but goats do thrive on pastures that other animals would disdain. Horses are choosier, and as a result one can't count on horses to keep a pasture uniformly short and neat. At our vacation spot, with mixed herds of horses and goats left to roam outside the buildings all evening, few weeds were reliably left alone. Presumably and luckily for me, Miss Scarlet was not considered a delicacy by either grazer.

Scarlet pimpernel is not the only small and common but frequently overlooked floral beauty. Creeping veronica bears a lavender flower, striped with darker blue. It's a tiny, spreading annual, far more common in yards than is scarlet pimpernel. It is more often known as common speedwell, but the name creeping veronica allows the plant a bit more personality, and I think she deserves it. Blue-eyed star grass is a slender, foot-tall cousin of irises, bearing yellow centers and six jay-blue petals. This one is found in damp meadows, and sometimes at woodland edges. Black medic, easily mistaken for clover before flowering, has a tiny yellow flower that would fit perfectly in a doll's hand. I mow around clusters of bluets (Houstonia), which grace our yard for the month of May before disappearing into the other herbs. The smartweeds' tiny pink flowers grace our woods and other overgrown grassy areas in August. My younger daughter has shown me—many times as if newly discovered — either the lovely yellow flower or the tiny red strawberry of cinquefoil, the wild cousin of our domestic strawberry.

None of these plants—some found in weed guides, some in wildflower guides only—is a significant economic problem. Also, I've never been asked to identify them by a gardener, farmer, or neighbor, implying to me that none of them is an eyesore. Several of these small weeds are perennials or predictably self-seeding annuals. And yet, most or all of them would be killed in routine lawn herbicide treatment. Sometimes when I walk on a public lawn, I look for these little plants as indicators of whether the grass has been herbicide treated or not.

Recently, at Beechwood Farms, the local Audubon nature center, I saw scarlet pimpernel growing in gravel at the base of a building. Just as I was exclaiming to Emily about this beautiful little flower, an Audubon employee overheard me and peeked over to see what plant we were examining. She told us, in a disdainful voice, "Oh, that one. It isn't native. We pull it." I felt irritated with her for interrupting my botany lesson, but even more, I was put off by the snobbish tone of the word "native." I'm not native to Pittsburgh either, but I like to think I can stick around if I just don't cause too much trouble. Scarlet pimpernel may not be native, but she's not out in the woods and fields beating up on the natives, either.

Other than their all-important status in the "native" or "non-native" column on some expert's checklist, I doubt that much is known, ecologically, about most of these small flowering weeds, including scarlet pimpernel, black medic, creeping veronica. They are not rare enough to merit study by those interested in ecology; they are not large or vigorous enough to merit study by weed scien tists, except those who research turf—even then, none might merit a whole research paper in itself. Commercial seed sources for them would probably be unprofitable. They are most likely pollinated by insects too small to be either honey producers or pests, and eaten by animals who choose them simply as one portion of a varied herbal diet.

Subtlety is admired in many contexts. In wines or fine foods, tastes may suggest themselves gently, and the winemaker or cook would be praised for her demonstrated skills. Gardeners pride themselves on having plants that no one else has, even though I would imagine that most of the time, the average visitor has no idea that something rare is present. When garden club members pass around order forms for plants for fundraisers at meetings, I have noticed that the plant descriptions always include the words "new" or "rare"— descriptions like "New Amaryllis hybrids!" or "Rare Color Mutant!" I think this is one reason why gardeners enjoy both hosting and attending tours of other gardens: they can see unusual plants and meet other people who appreciate them. Oddly enough, this desire for the unusual or rare garden specimen has endangered some plants, such as wild orchids and helped spread scourges such as purple loosestrife and dame's rocket, both of which were, at one time, "new and unusual species!" But for some reason, subtlety in weedy flowers doesn't seem to endear them to anyone; I have never heard a garden club conversation about scarlet pimpernel. She seems so striking to me, but she's not in garden catalogs yet.

When we discuss what plants we might be targeting when we employ an herbicide, I don't think scarlet pimpernel is generally considered to be in the enemy camp. At the same time, I think we'd do well to look more closely. Yes, the dandelions are big and audacious offenders, but when we kill them we lose smaller and less offensive species in the crossfire. If I'm ever lucky enough to have scarlet pimpernel in my yard, I'll only have one problem with cultivating it: I won't be able to pick it, because I want Miss Scarlet to stay, to be fruitful, and multiply.

Maybe, if scarlet pimpernel is still in Arkansas next time we go,

I'll find some in seed, or maybe I'll ask permission to pot some up. I've always felt a bit intimidated, around other garden club members, by the shortage of rare or new varieties of flowers in my garden. Perhaps I can start a new garden club fundraiser with seedlings of my beloved scarlet pimpernel on offer.

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