Celia Thaxter on Scarlet Pimpernel

Following in the foot-steps of Jean Stefanik’s excellent post on Scarlet Pimpernel at the Isles of Shoals, we thought we’d share a poem from Celia Thaxter on this very same subject. Note the use of the pimpernel, here, as a proxy for determining bad weather much as Jean discusses it being a poor man’s weather glass in her post. We hope that you enjoy.
Scarlet Pimpernel (Photo courtesy of Jean Stefanik).

Scarlet Pimpernel (Photo courtesy of Jean Stefanik).

The Pimpernel

She walks beside the silent shore,
The tide is high, the breeze is still;
No ripple breaks the ocean-floor,
The sunshine sleeps upon the hill.

The turf is warm beneath her feet,
Bordering the beach of stone and shell,
And thick about her path the sweet
Red blossoms of the pimpernel.

“O sleep not yet, my flower!” she cries,
“Nor prophesy of storm to come;
Tell me that under steadfast skies
Fair winds shall bring my lover home.”

She stoops to gather flower and shell,
She sits, and, smiling, studies each
She hears the full tide rise and swell
And whisper softly on the beach.

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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.

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A historic look at the flora and fauna of the Isles of Shoals

First a description of the Islands, pre-1895, from Frank Preston Stearns’s Sketches from Concord and Appledore:

They are mostly bare rocks, like mountain tops rising above the water. They are not however submerged mountains, for as their name indicates the sea is nowhere very deep about them. If the points of the horse-shoe had been turned toward the east instead of the west they would not have been habitable and the place would have been known to navigators as the Devil’s Reef, The Devil’s Horse-shoe or by some other term ominous of shipwrecks. The group of islands form a cosy though not very safe harbor where every evening in the mackerel season a small fleet of fishing-vessels sail in there to anchor for the night (223-224).


A herring gull

Stearns continues with an account of the flora and fauna of the Shoals. Notice some of the differences as you read, the lack of trees and the prevalence of burgomaster (glaucaus gulls or Larus hyperboreus). Recall that on John Smith’s 1614 arrival many of the islands did have trees, according to his description. But do we really believe Appledore to be home to that many green snakes?

As might be expected the fauna and flora  of the Shoals is neither rare nor extensive. Gulls are to be seen of course at all times – especially the large burgomaster gull, one of the finest of birds in size and ferocity, and in power of sight nearly equal to an eagle. In spring and fall, flocks of coot and the more fishy sort of ducks are to be found there together with a good many loons. Snowy owls are not uncommon in cold weather, and during winter almost any kind of Arctic bird may arrive there. A flock of eider ducks once took refuge and were shot under the same overhanging rock where the terrified servant-girl concealed herself when pursued by the murderer Wagner. There are probably more green snakes on Appledore than anywhere else in America. Wild roses and morning-glories are the only flowers large enough to attract the notice of a passing tourist, but Celia Thaxter has also written a pretty poem on pimpernel. There are no trees to speak of (224).

Sterans, Frank Preston (1895) Sketches from Concord and Appledore. G.P. Putnam and Sons: New York.