Monday, October 19, 2015

The Scarlet Pimpernel

The scarlet pimpernel is a small indigenous plant with beautiful red or blue flowers. It is found in central and southern Europe, in North Africa and in western Asia. It has been introduced accidentally or as a decorative plant in many places including North and South America, Central and East Asia, the Indian sub-continent, Australasia the Pacific Islands and South Africa. In some areas where it has been introduced it has become a pest.

In Malta the pimpernel flowers from March to May. Further north it flowers later in spring and in some areas it remains in flower throughout most of the summer. The flowers grow singly on a thin stalk. The flower is made up of five petals with a small purple spot at the bottom part of the petals which form a circular shape at the centre of the flower. 

The flowers are very sensitive to light. They open up only after the sun is bright enough and close down as soon as the sun disappears behind a cloud. The plant has been called the poor man’s barometer, the poor man’s weather glass and the shepherd’s clock although I doubt whether it has ever been used to tell the weather or time as it is much easier to look up at the sky and check whether the sun is shining than looking at the ground to check if the tiny flowers are open or closed.     

In Maltese the pimpernel is known as ħarira ħamra or ħarira kaħla although the second name is nowadays being used for another very similar species whose flowers are always blue.

The English name comes from a late Middle English word which itself comes from the Middle French word pimpernelle meaning small pepper.

In the past the pimpernel was used medicinally as a diuretic, and as an expectorant and to relieve depression. It is toxic to livestock and can be poisonous. 

The plant is the emblem of Emma Orczy’s fictional character Scarlet Pimpernel, an aristocratic hero who rescued condemned victims from the guillotine during the French Revolution. 

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 26 March 2015.  

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