The slender stems of this erect herbaceous perennial bear charming white flowers that brighten up shady areas from early summer to fall. The dense foliage in early spring and large calyx and flaring, fringy flowers in early summer are eye-catching. Starry campion grows 1 to 3 feet tall and spreads at a gentle pace by self-seeding. Older plants will send up multiple stems from the deep taproot. It thrives in partial shade and can handle full sun, but leaves may yellow. Best sited in well-drained clay, sandy, loamy, or rocky soils. Very drought tolerant. In very fertile soils, the stems sometimes lean sideways and would benefit from support. The flowers dislike intense light, opening in the evening and closing late morning. They open simultaneously across the long panicles, with a few buds delayed for an extended bloom. The lower leaves wither away as flowers appear, giving them center stage.
Starry campion is in the carnation family (Caryophyllaceae) and is a good alternative to non-native pinks such as dianthus and peony. Plants in the genus Silene are magnets for hummingbirds, moths, and butterflies. Stellata is a Latin word applied to plants that have flowers with a star-like appearance. This species is easy to identify: its upper and lower leaves are opposite and widely spaced along the stem, while the larger middle leaves are in whorls of four; its calyx is large, light green, and bell shaped; and its flowers have five distinct petals that are divided into 8-12 intricate, narrow lobes, giving the flowers a fringed look (another common name is widow’s frill). Other white-flowered campions lack deeply fringed petals, and their leaves always occur in opposite pairs.
Native habitats include upland rocky woodlands, wooded slopes, savannahs, shaded banks of rivers, meadows near woods, and prairies. It’s usually found in high-quality areas in the wild, and it’s a good choice for wildflower gardens, shady areas, and woodland gardens.
Grows 1-3’ tall and 1 ½–2’ wide.
Prefers light shade or part sun. Full sun causes leaf discoloration.
Prefers well-drained soils, especially sandy or clay, with dry to medium moisture. Dislikes overly moist soils and tolerates drought.
Flowers occur individually or in groups of 2-3, blooming June-October in panicles up to 8” long. Each flower is about ¾” across with 5 petals, a five-lobed calyx, 3 slender white styles, and 10 stamens with white filaments and yellowish anthers. There is no significant scent. Globular seed capsules follow--as the fruit develops, the calyx inflates, becoming nearly triangular in shape. When the capsule is ripe, it opens at the top, with 6 teeth around the opening. Inside are about 20 dark brown, kidney-shaped seeds.
Leaves are 4” long, elliptical or lance shaped, with smooth but very finely haired margins, and pointed tips. The leaf node is often swollen and tinged with reddish purple. Leaf color ranges from yellowish green to grayish or medium green. Lower portion of stem is purplish. Central stems end in a panicle of flowers.
Host plant to 6 species of Lepidoptera larvae, four of which are specialists, including the campion coronet, a rare noctuid moth, and bristly cutworm moth. Capsule moth caterpillar (another specialist) feeds on flowers and developing seed capsules.
Campions are especially attractive to larger butterflies, such as black swallowtails.
Deer sometimes eat the tops, but the foliage contains unappealing saponins and alkaloids.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
The roots contain saponin, which is a soap substitute.
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