Starry campion (Silene stellata) of the Caryophyllaceae (Pink or Carnation) Family is found throughout the eastern United States from North Dakota and Texas, eastward to the Atlantic Coast. In Arkansas, starry campion is found throughout the Interior Highlands (Ozark Mountains, Arkansas Valley and Ouachita Mountains), as well as on Crowley’s Ridge. It occurs in light shade or partial sun in both upland and lowland woods, savannas, prairies and on stream banks, in soils ranging from moist (mesic) to dry (xeric) loam and clay-loam with or without rocks.
Starry campion, aka widow’s frill, is an herbaceous, loosely-branched perennial plant that grows one to three feet tall. Plants consist of one or multiple stems arising from the crown of a thick, branched root-stock. The stems are branched only within the inflorescence. Lower portions of the stems are purplish, becoming less purplish above, though retaining the purplish color at leaf nodes. Elsewhere, the round stems are pale green and hairless to short, soft hairy. Stems with inflorescences often tend to lean, unless supported.
Leaves are opposite near the ground and in whorls of four higher up the stem and into the inflorescence. They are sessile (no petiole), acuminate (taper to a point), lance-shaped to elliptic, and entire (smooth margins). The leaves, up to four inches long and one and a half inches wide, have an upper surface that is medium green and glabrous (hairless) while the lower surface is paler and glabrous to finely pubescent (with soft hairs).
The inflorescence of starry campion, a terminal pyramidal panicle, consists of a main stem and a number of irregularly spaced branches carrying one to six or more flowers per branch. Branches arise first from above whorled leaves near the top of the plant, then above paired leaves higher up and then, at the very top, flowers occur individually. Flowers open across the entire inflorescence simultaneously (rather than strictly from top to bottom or vice versa), with some buds delayed for an extended bloom. Flowers (up to ¾” wide) open in the evening and close with bright sun. They have five white petals; three white, wispy, hair-like styles; ten white, hair-like stamens; and a light green bell-shaped calyx (formed by fused sepals) with five broad, often flaring, triangular points around the rim (giving a star-like appearance). Petals, deeply fringed in the flared upper portions, remain flared into the calyx, where they quickly taper to stalk-like bases. Calyxes are light green and hairless to finely pubescent on the outside and are marked with 10 darker green lines. They conceal a round, stalked ovary. Petals and stamens are attached below the stalked ovary (ovary in superior position). Smooth, green, rounded but flattened capsules (about twice the size of a BB) develop within the loosely enveloping calyxes. Capsules, maturing in late summer, contain up to about 20 small kidney-shaped seeds attached to a central placenta.
Starry campion is a good candidate for a native plant garden. It adapts well to a partly sunny site with good drainage and can survive dry periods. Early spring growth and white flowers in early summer are eye-catching. Its whorled leaves, fringed white petals, notable calyx, and considerable height provide interesting structure. In a small space it may need support. Starry campion propagates by seed only and is not invasive.
Note: Three other species somewhat similar to starry campion and found in northern Arkansas are white campion (Silene latifolia), bladder campion (Silene vulgaris) and ovate-leaf catchfly (Silene ovata). All three lack whorled leaves. White campion and bladder campion are introduced species and do not have fringed petals. Ovate-leaf catchfly is native, has narrower fringed petals and broad, opposite leaves.
Photo 1: Early spring. Erect stems of starry campion with near-ground opposite leaves and whorled leaves higher up.
Photo 2: Early summer. Clasping leaves located just below swollen nodes. Stem and nodes purple, but change to green higher up stem.
Photo 3: Flowers of each stem are in a loose terminal panicle.
Photo 4: Buds and flowers of starry campion at various stages of development on same branches.
Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl