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Super Hero in the Garden

A little hint of bring orange caught our eye here and there in the garden this past week.

Just a low-growing, chickweed-looking ground hugger, Margaret noticed the little guy first. I used my “Seek” app on the phone and, before the internet could identify the small, 5-leaf flower that my phone camera captured, she asked; “Is it a man’s name?”

Pimpernel might not be a name you commonly associate with “a man,” yet she was right. The name of this flower was once ascribed to a popular figure in a book entitled, ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel,’ by Baroness Emma Orczy. In the book she writes of Sir Percy Blakeney: “We seek him here, we seek him there, Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell? That dammed, elusive Pimpernel?”

Elusive, you say? Yes, like the character of the Baronesses 1905 first novel, this little flower only blooms when the sun is shining. It’s a small wonder that it even survives in Anna Warner’s walkway garden and does not get plucked out with the weekly weeding. Another once-popular name for Anagallis arvensis is ‘Poor man’s weathervane’ because the flower petals close up with darkening skies of incoming storms.

No-one can say for sure when Miss Warner might have added this flower to her garden, but certainly the book about the French Revolution and the flower of the same name would have been well known to her. In the 1905 London screenplay turned novel, ‘Sir Percy Blakeney leads a double life: apparently nothing more than a wealthy fop, but in reality a formidable swordsman and a quick-thinking master of disguise and escape artist. The band of gentlemen who assist him are the only ones who know of his secret identity. He is known by his symbol, a simple flower, the scarlet pimpernel.’ (Wikipedia)

The literary devise of leaving behind a “signature” card – or in this case small flower – came from Orczy’s first and most popular book. She also is credited with the foil technique or “hero with a secret identity” that has become popular in more modern creations such as Don Diego de la Vega (Zorro), Clark Kent (Superman), and Bruce Wayne (Batman), to name a few. In fact, Marvel comic co-creator Stan Lee stated: "The Scarlet Pimpernel was the first superhero I had read about, the first character who could be called a superhero."

And while the flower does not enjoy such notoriety, it is listed as a ‘good weed’ in my “Good Weed, Bad Weed: Who’s Who, What to Do, and Why Some Deserve a Second Chance” handy reference book by Nancy Gift. She writes: “The flowers are unmistakable… a light red of a cardinal feather held up to sunlight, tiny yellow anthers sending pollen from the flower’s center and the tiniest lavender center – only for the observer who bothers to look closely.” And if you perchance pull it out, “the flower fairies will then find someone else who appreciates it more, next summer.”

Thankfully, we now have the phone applications that help us identify and keep such little treasures. Of course, another way to determine what’s growing in your mulch bed is to let unknown plants reach maturity. Perhaps this year may be the perfect time to discover a hidden hero in your garden. It may be disguising as a weed.


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