How to grow red campion (Silene dioica)

Red campion (Silene dioica). Getty Images

Red campion (Silene dioica) is a hardy herbaceous perennial in the pink or Caryophyllaceae family. Related to cultivated flowers such as dianthus and gypsophila, red campion is native to northern and central Europe. It grows wild across the UK in hedgerows, woodland and on northern and western sea-cliffs. Its vivid five-petalled rose-pink blooms can be seen in May and June, though plants can also flower less prolifically until September, or even later.

The name of the genus is thought to refer to Silenus, rustic god of woodland and drunkenness in Greek mythology, or possibly the related Greek word ‘sialon’ meaning saliva, a reference to the female flower secreting a frothy substance for capturing pollen on visiting insects. ‘Diocia’ refers to red campion’s dioecious nature, with male and female flowers produced on separate plants. Female plants tend to be less common and produce fewer flowers than male plants.

Silene dioica is also known as adder’s flower, cuckoo flower, red catch-fly, devil’s flower and Red Riding Hood. The reference to Little Red Riding Hood is due to the colour of the flowers, and other names are linked to superstition and folk medicine. In Welsh, red campion’s name ‘blodyn neidr’ translates as snake’s flower because the crushed seeds were thought to cure snakebite. In some parts of the UK, such as the Isle of Man, it was known as fairy flower, because picking red campion flowers was thought to anger the fairies.

How to grow red campion

Red campion in a meadow (<em>Silene dioica</em>). Getty Images
Red campion in a meadow. Getty Images

Grow red campion in moist but well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade. Sow seeds in spring or autumn, or simply let this low-maintenance plant spread by self-seeding. It can grow in deep shade, but is unlikely to flower in such positions.


How to identify red campion

Red campion flowers. Getty Images
Red campion flowers. Getty Images

This herbaceous perennial grows to around 1m in height. Plants have downy stems and hairy leaves which grow in opposite pairs. Flowers are pinky-red with five deeply-forked petals joined at the base. Red campion will cross with white campion (Silene latifolia) where both plants occur, to produce a hybrid (Silene x hampeana) with flowers that range from almost white to mid-pink.

Red campion could be confused with other related pink flowers such as ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) and corncockle (Agrostemma githago). However, both ragged robin and corncockle tend to have slightly larger flowers than red campion. Ragged robin has highly divided ‘ragged’ petals and corncockle has more rounded petals with shallow notches.


Value to wildlife

Sedge warbler on red campion. Getty Images
Sedge warbler on red campion. Getty Images

Red campion flowers are a favourite of the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum), which has the longest tongue of all UK bumblebees. Bees with shorter-tongues, like the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), will rob the nectar by biting holes in the side of the flowers, and honeybees (Apis mellifera) will also use these holes to feed.

Red campion attracts butterflies and hoverflies, and is included on the RHS Plants for Pollinators List. Hummingbird hawkmoths (Macroglossum stellatarum) also feed on the nectar, and the caterpillars of several other moth species, including campion, rivulet and lychnis moths, live inside the seed capsules and eat the seeds.


Where to grow red campion

A meadow of red campion. Getty Images
A meadow of red campion. Getty Images

Grow red campion in moist but well-drained, fairly fertile soil. It’s an ideal plant for woodland areas, wildlife gardens and damp wildflower meadows, where it should naturalise. Plants can tolerate drier soils once established. Red campion looks especially beautiful when grown alongside other meadow and woodland flowers.


How to plant red campion

Plant red campion in spring or autumn in well-prepared, weed-free soil. Plant out young plants grown from spring sowings in late spring or early summer once they have been hardened off and all danger of frost has passed. As a short-lived perennial, red campion should live for a few years, but will self-seed around the garden freely. If you don’t want plants to spread, deadhead flowers before the seeds develop.


How to care for red campion

Red campion (Silene dioica). Getty Images
Red campion (Silene dioica). Getty Images

Red campion requires very little care once it is established. Plants can be cut back after flowering to encourage new flushes of flowers.


How to propagate red campion

Propagate by sowing seeds or by division. Red campion seeds can be sown indoors or in a cold frame in autumn or in February or March. Sowings can also be made in situ in April or May. Divide established plants in spring or early autumn by lifting, splitting and replanting to form groups or drifts of plants. Bear in mind that it’s illegal to dig up red campion in the wild, so division can only be done from plants growing in gardens.


Pests and diseases

Red campion is not generally affected by pests and diseases. Occasionally flowers can be infected with a smut fungus, but it’s not thought to do plants much damage.

Advice on buying red campion

  • Buy red campion either as seed, plug plants or pot-grown plants
  • Always check bought plants for signs of pests and disease, before planting

Where to buy red campion online

Red campion is available to buy as seeds, plug plants and potted plants.

Red campion varieties to try

Silene dioica ‘Firefly’ produces gorgeous magenta-pink double flowers on upright stems. Height x Spread: 60cm x 60cm

Silene dioica ‘Rollie’s Favorite’ is a more compact variety with pink flowers and white eyes. Ideal for containers, rock gardens and the edge of borders or raised beds. H x S: 40cm x 40cm

Silene dioica ‘Ray’s Golden’ is a lovely red campion with golden leaves. Grows best in semi-shade as leaf colour is greener in shade and can scorch in full sun. H x S: 60cm x 60cm

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