Fire pinks seem to be very rare wildflowers in and around the Northeast Creek basin and possibly throughout the Triangle. I have only come across these bright red flowers with five deeply notched “pink” type petals at two locations in southern Durham County, on the edge of RTP. Fire pinks were the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s 2015 Wildflower of the Year, and free seeds were offered at the time ( ncbg.unc.edu/plants/nc-wildflower-of-the-year/ ; this year’s plant is the American beautyberry), so some might grow near the visitor center, but I haven’t seen them there myself. The first time I came across one of these unusual flowers might have been in May or possibly June off of South Alston not far from the border with Wake County, between the basins of tributaries Burdens Creek and Kit Creek. It might have been on a Sunday morning in late May 2001, also memorable because Sheriff deputies had a roadblock up the road, though there wasn’t much traffic. I stepped off the road along a rocky brook I think of as azalea brook in a somewhat open forest of pines and deciduous trees with sort of ‘dry’ soil where abandoned farmland was reverting back to forest on a late spring/early summer morning. I was familiar with the area because my Dad used to unicycle on a curcuit through the area on Saturday mornings and I sometimes joined by bicycle. The brook flows over slabs of solid bedrock, and the unusual igneous rock intrusions in the area might be the reason fire pinks and other rare flowers have grown there. On a high bank above a sharp bend there was an unusual wildflower maybe 1 to 3 feet high, probably bent over, with sparse leaves and striking red flowers that were sticky on the outside. On another occasion, maybe in the summer, I saw a single small fire pink on the edge of lawn on So Hi Drive near the Creek (maybe this was actually the first one I saw). Several years ago many fire pinks grew in a ditch at the edge of the woods across “Solutions Drive,” former South Alston, from what is now the back gate of the Social Security Administration’s secretive printing facility at 3604 Louis Stephens Drive, but more recently I have only seen yellow Jerusalem artichokes there (native flowers, despite the name). Wildflowers of North Carolina (Second Edition) calls fire pinks “weak perennials” and individual plants don’t seem to live very long. I went back to see the first plant I mentioned one or a few years later and there was no sign of it. I haven’t seen a fire pink in many years; possibly I haven’t been in the right habitat in the right season, but I think they must really be rare or I would come across them more often. They seem to prefer well-drained possibly poor soil with at least part-sun, and being shaded out by trees might be one reason individuals don’t live very long. They might benefit from periodic burning so they can get more sunlight.
Fire pinks (it seems like they could be called firepinks, but at most guides just hyphenate the name), also called Indian pinks and red or scarlet catchflies, are in the pink, campion, or carnation family (the Caryophyllaceae), as is star chickweed, a somewhat common early spring woodland wildflower, and several other sometimes showy flowers that should be found in the Triangle, though I haven’t encountered them myself. Like carnations and other pinks, fire pinks have opposite (paired) leaves and the stems are swollen at these nodes. The leaves are rounded and without serrations and when not in flower the plant is a clump of basal leaves. Fire pinks and related flowers often have a swollen calyx (the green sepals around the base of a flower) to varying degrees. Pink refers to their deeply notched petals, sometimes so deeply notched that they appear to have many petals, as is the case with star chickweed, not to their sometimes pink or red colors. “Pink” probably relates to pinking, as in pinking shears, scissors that make a zigzag cut in cloth, similar to the petal shape of many pinks. Catchfly refers to the stickiness of many of these species, not always around the flowers.
Fire pink’s scientific name is Silene virginica; it is unclear whether the generic name Silene refers to the Greek mythological figure Silenus, chief of the woodland satyrs and foster father and teacher of Dionysus, the god of wine, or to saliva (sialon in Greek), because of the stickiness. Both interpretations could be correct. The eFloras website says these flowers were or are called seilenos in Greek, possibly because Silenus got drunk and foaming. All About Alabama Wildflowers, an informative book that covers propagating and growing many wildflowers, compares distinctive projections low on the petals to hooves, satyrs sometimes sometimes being described as hooved. Both the genus and this species were named by Carl Linnaeus.
There are several species of native and introduced Silene in North Carolina, as well as less closely related flowers. Silene that might be found in the Triangle include the starry campion, also called star silene or widow’s frill (S. stellata); bladder campion or maiden’s-tears (S. cucubalus); sleepy catchfly (S. antirrhina); wild pink (S. caroliniana; it can hybridize with the fire pink); and night-flowering catchfly or sticky cockle (S. noctiflora). None are bright red, but in the Midwest royal catchfly, also called wild pink (S. regia), is another bright red Silene, and there are related flowers in the West that have been called Indian or fire pinks. Non-native bladder campions are named for their very enlarged calyx, and have also been called bird’s-eggs, fairy-potatoes, and rattle-bags. Also in the Triangle there might be non-native corn-cockles (Agrostemma githago) and mullein pink or dusty-miller (Lychnis coronaria). Lychnis comes from the Greek for flame, lamp, or light, another fiery color reference. White campion, also called evening lychnis or white cockle (L. alba), can be found elsewhere in the Carolinas. Species of Lychnis and Silene are very similar and are sometimes classified in one genus. There could also be soapwort or bouncing bet (Saponaria officinalis), both names related to how it produces a soapy lather in water (bouncing bets were washerwomen).
There are many related native and non-native chickweeds, in more than one genus, and while they are probably best known as household weeds star chickweed is a bright white wildflower blooming in older woodlands along Northeast Creek around now, and stands out as the forest floor is cast into shade later this month. Its scientific name is Stellaria pubera; the generic name refers to stars and the specific name might refer to its minute fuzziness or puberulence. It is also called giant or great chickweed, wood starwort (some other chickweeds are also called starworts), winterweed, and birdseed and has five petals, but they are so deeply notched that five seems to be ten. Introduced common chickweed or starwort, S. media, is eaten by chickens and other birds (and so it has been called “the hen’s inheritance,” according to A Sampler of Wayside Herbs), and there is grass-leaf chickweed, also called lesser or common stitchwort, S. graminea, another non-native, as well as native and non-native mouse-ear chickweeds in the genus Cerastium.
Related Dianthus, such as carnations (D. caryophyllus), sweet william (D. barbatus), and the (garden) pink (D. plumarius) are common ornamental relatives from the Old World with many cultural associations around the world, including with International Workers’ Day (May 1st, labor day in many countries), International Women’s Day (March 8th), Mother’s Day (May 9th this year), both weddings and funerals, and carnations are one of January’s birth flowers. Sweet william and pinks grow wild in parts of the Carolinas, and Deptford pinks or grass pinks (D. armeria), another European introduction, can be found in the Triangle, according to the Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. D. superbus, native from Europe to Japan, is called nadeshiko in Japanese, and Yamato nadeshiko refers to Japan’s traditional feminine ideal (Yamato is one of the many old names for Japan) and the national women’s soccer team is nicknamed Nadeshiko Japan.
A fire pink flower has five petals (with distinctive projections around the flower’s green throat), five sepals, ten male stamens, three female styles, and the deep tubular throat of the flower is ribbed longitudinally. The flowers are arranged in a wide and loose cluster called a cyme, in which the center flowers open first, and a fire pink probably has blooms over several weeks, producing flowers and ripe seedheads at the same time. Each flower can yield several brown seeds, in a bell-shaped capsule with six teeth at the top. There doesn’t seem to be any special means to spread the seeds, yet they seemed to spread far along that stretch of South Alston in only a few years, though there might have been more plants than I knew about.
According to Wildflowers of North Carolina, fire pinks can bloom April – July. The Illinois Wildflowers website ( www.illinoiswildflowers.info/woodland/plants/firepink.htm ) hypothesizes that they are pollinated by ruby-throated hummingbirds and larger butterflies, which would make sense given their bright red color and tubular shape. It seems surprising that these relatively small flowers growing in dry soil would produce enough nectar to satisfy a hummingbird. The stickiness should deter ants and other insects from stealing the nectar without transferring pollen, as well as deterring pests. Bees can steal nectar by biting through the sides of flowers, such as morning glories and probably also coral honeysuckles, another red spring and summer flower, but fire pinks might be toughened against this. A Field Book of American Wild Flowers (first printed in 1902) says white starry campions attract clouded sulphurs, a medium-sized yellow butterfly, and moths. Some related campions, such as night-flowering catchfly and white campion, as well as soapwort, are stark white and fragrant, to attract moths, specifically including sphinx moths in the case of soapwort (according to A Naturalist’s Guide to Field Plants).
Fire pink flowers have both male and female parts (a perfect flower), but other Silene species have been used in the study of the genetic determination of sex in plants (and they have sex chromosomes similar to our own, though the phenotypic results can be much more complex than just producing male or female flowers) and they suffer from a sexually transmitted fungal disease that causes sterility. Some species of Silene also have exceptionally large or even the largest known mitochondrial genomes (these genes control a eukaryotic cell’s powerplants, the mitochondria, which might have originally been free-living prokaryotic cells).
I haven’t come across any information about herbivores of fire pinks. There are also seemingly few recorded cultural uses or associations with fire pinks. Fire pinks were apparently considered poisonous by some Indian groups, possibly because fire pinks were conflated with pink-root (Spigelia marilandica), also called Indian pink, a five-petalled red and cream-colored flower related to the early spring-blooming and poisonous (if eaten) yellow jessamine vine, South Carolina’s state flower. Pink-root and possibly fire pink were used to drive out intestinal worms. For some reason starry campion was once used to treat copperhead and rattlesnake bites, but this treatment has long been called useless. Old World campions, including bladder campion, were thought to have the power to stun scorpions and neutralize their stings, and maybe this idea was transferred to snakes. The leaves of both bladder campion and chickweeds can be eaten after boiling (some chickweeds are eaten raw). Reportedly people on the Spanish Mediterranean island of Minorca lived on bladder campion after locusts consumed their crops. Chickweed is or was even considered “a delicacy” in Europe, sold in markets and substituted for spinach (according to Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge Parkway). Several of these plants contain saponins, ranging from a poisonous level in soapwort to just adding a little bitterness in bladder campion. Saponins are surfactants and soapwort really can be used for cleaning, and has been called fuller’s herb for its use in the fulling (cleaning and thickening) of wool cloth.
The reason to think about fire pinks early this spring is because three rezoning requests will probably be coming up near where fire pinks have been found. First, a few years ago Durham County bought the large flat field bordered by NC 55, TW Alexander Drive, and two stubs of what was South Alston, “Solutions Drive” and “Experiment Drive.” Until about 13 years ago this was a large hill covered with a young pine forest; a house near the top had a commanding view up and down 55, with a few mimosas, sumacs, black locusts, or the like and winged elms over grass and herbs down to the highway, while blackberries bloomed along TW Alexander in April. The hill was blasted away day and night, reportedly trucked away as fill for NC’s first modern toll road and whatever was left was deposited in the abandoned claypit a short distance southwest across 55, on what was the continuation of South Alston into Wake County. I remember hearing it from miles away on balmy late spring or early summer evenings. When I went by the corner in late May it had already been mostly levelled, with a whitish or pale cliff at the south end. I think they were reported to the police several times for noise heard further west. Blasting the igneous and sedimentary innards of the hill might have rattled the County’s Triangle Wastewater Treatment Plant, across 55 and dumping into Northeast Creek. There were plans for residential construction or a commercial strip mall at the corner, shown on some maps, but nothing was ever built. The site, about 40 acres, is addressed as 451 TW Alexander, 6001 NC 55, and 6026 Experiment Drive, probably where the farm’s driveway was (these parcels can be searched for through Durham’s Interactive Maps durhamnc.gov/1455/Interactive-Maps ). I thought management at the Triangle Wastewater Treatment Plant wanted the land for a sludge-drying facility, a valuable feature the plant currently lacks, but a community virtual meeting February 18th was about rezoning the site to Office and Industrial (from residential, commercial, and office zonings) for “a new Durham County Public Works Administration Building.” I was the only person who ‘attended’ the meeting. The presenters gave basically no information beyond what was in the brief Planning Department announcement about the meeting. I said what needed to be said, but I had a feeling that I had been insulted and there seemed to be little point to the meeting. Based on the very little that was said, I don’t have an objection to building an office building, but as I said then, it would be good if the landscaping fit with the unique features of the site, or if wildflowers were allowed to colonize the site naturally, and it seems likely that an office building wouldn’t take up all of the land. I haven’t seen any fire pinks at the site, but they could be there. Buttercups and probably Lespedeza or bush clover are abundant in the field and woodland spring ephemerals are currently blooming along a rock-lined stream I could call cane stream. The field used to be mown periodically, but even after that ended trees have been slow to return, and probably little real soil was left after the hill and its topsoil was carried away.
Business interests want to rezone a vast area of Triangle Brick Company land a short distance south of the above site, extending from the east side off 55, just south of the intersection of the new Hopson Road and 55, through the abandoned claypit off Greenlevel Church Road (formerly South Alston), as far west as the top of the ridge that can be seen from the Grandale Road bridge over Northeast Creek, a site that could be in all more than a mile across. Some of the land might not be in Durham County, but I think the proposal calls for building only in Durham. I’m suspicious about what such a project would mean for the land owned by the Wrenn family further west, along Grandale and Wake roads. Both of these vast areas were clearcut, the Triangle Brick Co.’s land around summer 2010 and the Wrenn land maybe in 2018 or before. The land immediately around Northeast Creek is owned by the Federal government and managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission as gameland and on the west side of 55 a large area is owned by Durham County. I think I was one of only two community members ‘attending’ the virtual meeting on January 26th, but the well-known lawyer Patrick Byker, the main presenter, must not have known I was there. I think the figure given was that this “assemblage” is in all 241 acres, and they want it all rezoned Light Industrial (some of it is currently Rural Residential) and annexed by the City of Durham, to build a business park with five to six short office or industrial buildings (similar to those built recently at the corner of Hopson and 54, I think it was said by the same company), with construction in stages, starting in the spring of 2022. These low-lying gamelands are NC Natural Heritage Program inventory sites, and this discouraged residential construction on Scott King Road near the Tobacco Trail about ten years ago (but a DPS elementary school will soon be built at the “Scott Mill” site). The bottomlands periodically inundated by Jordan Lake for flood control are protected as public lands, but species living on the protected land could be lost if they also need the surrounding rural uplands to live or if they require a larger habitat than just what is preserved on the government lands. A stark example is provided by two very large woodpeckers. Pileated woodpeckers don’t seem to like built up areas, but I often hear their calls along Northeast Creek and elsewhere in the Triangle and occasionally see one, while ivory-billed woodpeckers, which are much larger but similar in appearance, are now more like rumors or apparitions than living birds and might be completely extinct. The related Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker, a subspecies or a separate species, might also be extinct, as might the related imperial woodpecker of Mexico, apparently the largest woodpecker in the world if it still exists. I saw something like a breeding chuck-will’s-widow or whippoorwill in a scrap of woods at the school site on Scott King Road, rural birds that I thought had been driven out of the region (the bird, I assume a hen, was obviously trying to lead me away from a nest or chicks hidden nearby). The NHP inventory reports note nesting black-and-white warblers and probably nesting sharp-shinned hawks and the presence of ribbon snakes as rare animal species in the area, as well as Douglass’ bittercress and other state or regionally rare or unusual plants, and there were otters and mink along the Creek, but the area hasn’t been surveyed since 1999. The most recent Durham report recommends that “Preservation of upland buffers along the edges of the bottomlands should be given a high priority. These slopes provide denning areas for terrestrial species, as well as refuges during periods of high water” while the 1999 Jordan Lake Inventory recommends that “No more utility corridors should be allowed in the area” along Northeast Creek between 55 and 751, and a project south of the Creek there would probably require new Durham water and sewer connections and lift stations to get over the hills, and maybe new electrical infrastructure as well. I think there was discussion of building a utility easement through here for 751 South at one point and earlier there was discussion of a road extension.
Lastly, during this economic crisis there is a rezoning proposal at the intersection of Northeast Creek Parkway and So Hi Drive (2102 So Hi Drive, on the south, RTP side of the intersection), near the Triangle Curling Club building and extending towards the intersection of Northeast Creek Parkway and East Cornwallis Road. Northeast Creek flows through this large, long undisturbed wooded site and the site also includes a small amount of land on the north side of the Parkway. It is owned by Parmer Woodlands 3 LLC, with an address in Carlsbad, California. Similarly named LLCs with the same address own much of the north end of RTP and March 23rd there was a Board of Adjustment hearing over rear parking lot landscaping at a very large project already being built a short distance beyond the Creek, but hidden by the forest (it has the addresses 2152 and 2362 So Hi Drive and 224 Northeast Creek Parkway, but doesn’t seem to connect, at least for now). I must have been the only person ‘attending’ the community meeting, which was also the evening of February 18th. They want the site rezoned as Science Research Park, from Rural Residential, to build two office buildings, but it was not entirely clear if the proposal is to build along the road, so Northeast Creek wouldn’t be crossed. I have seen many locally rare plants nearby, including horsetails, liverwort (the non-flowering plant), toothworts, Hepatica (a pale blue early spring flower sometimes called liverleaf or liverwort), star chickweed, at least one large Catawba Rhododendron (it is unclear if someone planted it long ago or if it really is the last of its kind along Northeast Creek, and a few years ago it was narrowly missed by a logging road), serviceberries (probably done blooming by now; their fruit is apparently a favorite food of chuck-will’s-widows), spicebushes, Penstemons, and umbrellatrees, deciduous magnolias with huge leaves that usually bloom by the start of May. Umbrellatrees seem to be much more common in Wake County than west, and perhaps fire pinks are also more common in the Neuse River basin. There are numerous beaver ponds, some visible from Northeast Creek Parkway near Cornwallis. These two ends of RTP where fire pinks grow (or grew) are also some of the few places where there are pinxterflowers, deciduous native azaleas a bit more common than fire pinks, with elegant honeysuckle-like nearly white to light pink or purple, fragrant flowers in late April, another sight to see before the Silene’s fiery red as summer’s heat begins.