Scarlet Pimpernel: The poor man’s weather glass

Today we have a special treat for you. One of our Lyman V. Rutledge Marine Laboratory committee members and dynamic volunteer, Jean Stefanik, has put together a post for you on Scarlet Pimpernel. We hope you enjoy!

Scarlet Pimpernel

Scarlet Pimpernel (Photo courtesy of Jean Stefanik).

Throughout the Isles of Shoals a small, unassuming plant graces the landscape each summer.   It’s one of those charming non-native plants brought to the Shoals presumably by early fishermen.  Scarlet pimpernel, Anagallis arvensis, is also called the poorman’s barometer or  weather-glass, and is a low-growing annual plant found originally in Europe, now also in  Asia and North America.

The English Wildflower Guide lists it as native to England, “common on bare and disturbed ground, especially …and also found on sea cliffs.  It is an annual, prostrate, spreading and scrambling herb… flower is up to 14mm across (about 1/2 inch) and has 5 scarlet petals with a purple eye and a fringe of hairs… 5 bright orange stamens. The fruits are globose capsules…stems are square…  leaves are opposite, pointed ovals, inserted directly onto the stem.”   It’s now naturalized on the Isles of Shoals, which means it dies each fall but re-seeds itself freely for the next year, and has been doing so on the Shoals for at least 400 years!

An artist's rendering of the famous plant (Photo courtesy of Jean Stefanik).

Jean Stefanik’s rendering of the famous plant (Drawing courtesy of Jean Stefanik).

While scarlet pimpernel is common on the Shoals, one sometimes has to do a bit of searching for it because of its size.   It is usually most recognizable beginning in July when the tiny bright orange flowers begin to open.  Look for small plants or clumps, especially on a sunny day, because the flowers only open when the weather is sunny.   Some say it’s a predictor of upcoming storms by responding to drops in air pressure (which usually accompanies storminess) while others think overcast lighting or dropping temperatures trigger the flowers to remain closed, even in the daytime.   This predictive ability is responsible for its “poor man’s weather glass/barometer” common names, and apparently why early mariners found it useful to carry, and ultimately plant, on the shores of North America.

The next time you visit the Shoals in the summer or early fall, spend a few minutes exploring for this tiny gem of a flower—you will be charmed and delighted when you do find it.  Pay attention to whether the flowers are tightly closed or open, and then watch the weather for the next 24 hours and see for yourself if it truly predicts upcoming weather.  Regardless, you will surely be intrigued by its tenacity, predictive reputation and beauty.

Close up of the Scarlet Pimpernel flower which often appear quite red.

Close up of the Scarlet Pimpernel flower which often appears orange (Photo courtesy of Jean Stefanik).

3 thoughts on “Scarlet Pimpernel: The poor man’s weather glass

  1. Pingback: Celia Thaxter on Scarlet Pimpernel | Lyman V. Rutledge Marine Laboratory

  2. Pingback: Anagallis arvensis | Find Me A Cure

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