Lewis's Specimen - Clarkia

Clarkia pulchella

I met with a singular plant today in blume," wrote Meriwether Lewis on June 1, 1806, "of which I preserved a specemine. It grows on the steep sides of the fertile hills near this place." He described the root, stem, branches and leaves, and finally the parts of the delicate flower:

...The corolla superior consists of four pale perple petals which are tripartite, the central lobe the largest and all terminate obtusely; they are inserted with a long and narrow claw on the top of the germ, are long, smooth & deciduous. There are two distinct sets of stamens the 1st or principal consists of four, the filaments of which are capillary, erect, inserted on the top of the germ alternately with the petals, equal short, membranous; the anthers are also four each being elivated with it's fillament, they are linear and reather flat, erect sessile, cohering at the base, membranous, longitudinally furrowed, twise as long as the fillament [and] naked, and of a pale perple color. the second set of stamens are very minute, are also four, and placed within and opposite to the petals. These are scarcely persceptable while the 1st are large and conspicuous; the filaments are capillary equal, very short, white and smooth. the anthers are four, oblong, beaked, erect, cohering at the base, membranous, shorter than the fillaments, white, naked and appear not to form pollen....This has the appearance of a monopetallous flower growing from the center of a four petalled corollar."

Above is the dried specimen of the "singular plant" that Lewis collected, and which, in 1814, botanist Frederick Pursh named Clarkia pulchella. The label at lower left, applied to the original specimen sheet in 1896 by botanist Thomas Meehan of the Academy of Natural Sciences, reads "Clarkia pulchella Pursh." An additional label, not shown here, which possibly was written by Pursh, says "A beautifull herbaceous plant from the Kooskooskee & Clark's R. Jun. 1st 1806."

A Family Matter


In some parts of its native range—the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Idaho, and western Montana—Clarkia pulchella is sometimes called "ragged robin." Elsewhere that common name is applied universally to Silene flos-cuculi (Sigh-lean-ee flohss-coo-coo-lee), a native of the British Isles. The two plants belong to different plant families.

Clarkia is a member of the family Onagraceae (oh-nah-gray-see-ee), which includes the fuchsia and the evening primrose. Silene belongs to the pink family, the scientific designation for which is Caryophyllaceae (keh-ree-oh-fill-ay-see-ee).

In Clarkia pulchella, the four lavender to rose-purple petals are three-lobed and taper to a long, claw-like base where a pair of short, blunt teeth also are present. There are four stamens, with a single, prominent, white, four-cleft stigma dominating the center of the flower.

Ragged Robin

In Silene flos-cuculi, the five short-clawed petals are rose pink, with each petal deeply four-cleft. There are five stamens and five small, essentially head-like stigmas. As may be seen, the two flowers are markedly different.

Clarkia is a western North American genus of more than 40 species, most of which are found in California; one is found in temperate South America. Silene, which is native to the Northern Hemisphere in Eurasia and North America, is composed of some 700 species, of which 70 occur in North America, with 17 of those being escaped introductions from the Old World.

Silene flos-cuculi, long known as Lychnis (lick-niss) flos-cuculi, was introduced into North America sometime late in the 19th century, and is still cultivated in eastern Canada and New England. It does not grow wild anywhere in the Rocky Mountains, although it has been reported to have excaped from cultivation in eastern Montana and western Washington.

The photograph of Silene flos-cuculi above was taken recently in southwestern Ireland by John Crellin.

—James L. Reveal, 07/05