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Plant of the week: Forked Catchfly

Entry number #3 in our Plant of the Week series follows an exciting and unexpected find in Newcastle last week.

Unlike our last entry, this week’s plant is not one native to the UK. Nor is it one I suspect many people will have heard of – I certainly hadn’t. As you’ll see, Forked Catchfly is not a species one would typically expect to find growing in a patch of messy grassland within Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Forked Catchfly, Silene dichotoma

Forked Catchfly (Silene dichotoma) is a rather lovely member of the pink family native to parts of Eastern Europe. It occurs from Italy in the West eastward as far as Russia. It can also be widely encountered outside of its natural range in Western Europe, Africa and parts of America where it’s seeds often arrive alongside exports of grain and clover seed.

The natural habitat of Forked Catchfly is said to be disturbed grasslands and open forests. It also readily exploits man-made habitats including roadsides, wasteland and agricultural margins where soil disturbance is common. At Gosforth Nature Reserve, where I encountered it last week, it was found growing on a patch of formerly disturbed dry grassland. Had the seeds been in the soil already or had they escaped from nearby farmland? Who knows…

This sighting represents the first recorded of Forked Catchfly for Northumberland. Elsewhere, it has been recorded widely but infrequently across the UK, with the greatest concentration of records in the South of England. This species would appear to have been much more common pre 1930s, possibly suggesting a decline with increased biosecurity.

Like some other catchfly species, the flowers of Silene dichotoma open fully at dusk or on overcast days

What does it look like?

Forked Catchfly is a rather ragged-looking, unkempt plant. In fact, it is this messy appearance which strikes you first, helping seperate it from its native cousins. An erect and very hairy plant, it has many flowers sporting deeply lobed white petals. These can sometimes take on a curled form, as shown in the picture below.

The flowers of this species are encased within an inflated calyx of sepals marked with ten distinctive black veins.

The leaves of this species are lanceolate and up to 8cm long. These decrease in size as you move up the stem towards the flowers and like the rest of the plant, are rather hairy.

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