Night-flowering Catchfly is an introduced and naturalized erect annual forb that grows 1 to 4 feet high on stout stems which branch in the upper part, that have coarse hair in the lower section and sticky glandular hair in all the upper parts.
Leaves: The larger lower leaves are spatulate shaped and narrow to a short winged stalk. These can be 3 to 5 inches long. Stem leaves are all opposite, a pair on each node, well spaced. These become smaller toward the top and the upper stem leaves usually unite around the stem. These are lanceolate shaped with pointed tips, well defined veins, hairy on both surfaces. Leaf margins are without teeth but somewhat wavy.
The inflorescence is a loose branched cluster atop each stem (a cyme) that has 3 to 15 flowers. At the base of each cyme are small green bracts.
The flowers are fragrant and open at night, closing in the bright light of morning. They are also perfect, unlike some other Silenes. The calyx is tubular, more than 1/2 inch long with 10 prominent nerves in dark green, 5 of which have long thin extended fingers which cover the lower parts of the corolla. The calyx tube inflates when in flower. The corolla is white, sometime with pink tinges, and has 5 clawed spreading narrow lobes that are deeply cut at the rounded, slightly ragged, tips. In the center is a ring of small white appendages. There are 10 stamens and 3 styles, none of which are exserted beyond the corolla throat. The flower stalk and calyx are covered with sticky glandular hair.
Seed: Fertile flowers produce an ovoid seed capsule, constricted at the mouth, which has 6 recurved teeth. Inside the capsule are a large number of dark grayish-brown, slightly kidney shaped seeds, each 1 mm or less in length. Each seed's outer surface has rows of fine tubercles. Seeds are shaken out of the capsule by the wind.
Habitat: Night-flowering Catchfly grows in disturbed areas, waste places and cultivated fields. It prefers moist to mesic soil conditions and at least partial sun during the day. It develops a deep but slender taproot, but aggressively reproduces by seed. Seeds that germinate in the fall may produce a rosette that overwinters.
Names: The name 'Catchfly' refers to the sticky calyx which can trap small insects. The genus, Silene, is from the Greek word seilenos and believed to be derived from Silenus who was the foster father of the Greek god Bacchus. Silenus was described as covered with foam, a reference to the white foam frequently found on stems of this genus. The species, noctiflora, means 'night-flowering'. The author name for the plant classification, 'L.' is for Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.
Comparisons: The most confusing species will be S. latifolia, the White Campion, but there the flowers open in early morning and stay open during part of the day, closing in the late afternoon; it does not have perfect flowers; it has 5 styles instead of 3; it has a calyx with shorter teeth, and the seed capsule has only 5 teeth, but each tooth is notched. It is not heavily sticky like S. noctiflora. Others to review are Starry Campion, Silene stellata and Royal Catchfly, Silene Regia.
Above: Two flowers - 1st photo in darkness, 2nd photo in early morning before bright light. Note the central appendages in the corolla throat. The 10 stamens and 3 styles are not exserted from the corolla tube.
Below: 1st photo - The upper part of a smaller plant - note flowers have closed in the morning. 2nd photo - The stems are covered with whitish hair. 3rd photo - A seed capsule formed from a fertile flowers. Note the glandular hair on the capsule, stalk and upper leaves.
Below: 1st photo - The smaller upper stem leaves unite at the base, around the stem. 2nd photo - The lower stem leaves are more spatulate in shape and taper to a short stalk .
Below: The calyx tube has 10 prominent dark green nerves, 5 of which form long pointed fingers. The tube inflates when the flower opens. The small green linear pointed bracts at the base of each flower cluster are visible in the cluster upper right in the photo.
Below: The mature seed capsule has 6 recurved teeth at the mouth. The capsule contains numerous dark grayish-brown, slightly kidney shaped seeds, each 1 mm or less in length. Each seeds outer surface has rows of fine tubercles which help in floatation.
Below: The root system develops a long slender taproot. The plant is well-anchored to the ground.
Notes: Night-flowering Catchfly is considered indigenous to the Garden. Eloise Butler first mentions it on July 20, 1915 when she noted in her log "Found Silene noctiflora in blossom!! near Hemlock, west brookside." By the time of Martha Crone's 1951 census, it was gone and has never returned or been replanted. It is found in most of North America except the very far north and some states of the U.S. along the southern border. It is an introduction from Europe, perhaps coming in crop seed as the small seeds were very difficult to separate in the old days from those of clover and alfalfa.
There are twelve Silenes found in Minnesota, but this species, being one of 8 that is not native, is found in about 1/3 of the counties, widely scattered, with some presence in the SE, some in the Metro and most often found in the northern counties.
The four Silenes native to Minnesota are: S. antirrhina, Sleepy Catchfly; S. drummondii, Drummond's Campion; S. nivea, Snowy Campion; and S. stellata, Starry Campion.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"