Evening Primrose Family
( Originally Published 1922 )
Great or Spiked Willow-herb; Fire-weed
Epilobium angustifolium (Chamaenerion angustifolium)
Flowers—Magenta or pink, sometimes pale, or rarely white, more or less than 1 in. across, in an elongated, terminal, spike-like raceme. Calyx tubular, narrow, in 4 segments; 4 rounded, spreading petals; 8 stamens; 1 pistil, hairy at base; the stigma 4-lobed. Stem: 2 to 8 ft. high, simple, smooth, leafy. Leaves: Narrow, tapering, willow-like, 2 to 6 in. long. Fruit: A slender, curved, violet-tinted capsule, from 2 to 3 in. long, containing numerous seeds attached to tufts of fluffy, white, silky threads.
Preferred Habitat—Dry soil, fields, roadsides, especially in burnt-over districts.
Distribution—From Atlantic to Pacific, with few interruptions; British Possessions and United States southward to the Carolinas and Arizona. Also Europe and Asia.
Spikes of these beautiful brilliant flowers towering up-ward above dry soil, particularly where the woodsman's axe and forest fires have devastated the landscape, illustrate Nature's abhorrence of ugliness. Other kindly plants have earned the name of fireweed, but none so quickly beautifies the blackened clearings of the pioneer, nor blossoms over the charred trail in the wake of the locomotive. Whole mountainsides in Alaska are dyed crimson with it. Beginning at the bottom of the long spike, the flowers open in slow succession upward through-out the summer, leaving behind the attractive seed-vessels, which, splitting lengthwise in September, send adrift white silky tufts attached to seeds that will one day cover far distant wastes with beauty. Almost perfect rosettes, made by the young plants, are met with on one's winter walks.
Evening Primrose; Night Willow-herb
Flowers—Yellow, fragrant, opening at evening, 1 to 2 in. across, borne in terminal leafy-bracted spikes. Calyx tube slender, elongated, gradually enlarged at throat, the 4-pointed lobes bent backward; corolla of 4 spreading petals; 8 stamens; 1 pistil; the stigma 4-cleft. Stem: Erect, wand-like, or branched, 1 to 5 ft. tall, rarely higher, leafy. Leaves: Alternate, lance-shaped, mostly seated on stem, entire, or obscurely toothed.
Preferred Habitat—Roadsides, dry fields, thickets, fence-corners.
Flowering Season—June—October. Distribution—Labrador to the Gulf of Mexico, west to the Rocky Mountains.
Like a ball-room beauty, the Evening Primrose has a jaded, bedraggled appearance by day when we meet it by the dusty roadside, its erect buds, fading flowers from last night's revelry, wilted ones of previous dissipations, and hairy oblong capsules, all crowded together among the willow-like leaves at the top of the rank-growing plant. But at sunset a bud begins to expand its delicate petals slowly, timidly—not suddenly and with a pop, as the evening primrose of the garden does.
Now, its fragrance, that has been only faintly perceptible during the day, becomes increasingly powerful. Why these blandishments at such an hour? Because at dusk, when sphinx moths, large and small, begin to fly, the primrose's special benefactors are abroad. All these moths, whose length of tongue has kept pace with the development of the tubes of certain white and yellow flowers dependent on their ministrations, find such glowing like miniature moons for their special benefit, when blossoms of other hues have melted into the deepening darkness. If such have fragrance, they prepare to shed it now. Nectar is secreted in tubes so deep and slender that none but the moths' long tongues can drain the last drop. An exquisite, little, rose-pink twilight flyer, his wings bordered with yellow, flutters in ecstasy above the Evening Primrose's freshly opened flowers, transferring in his rapid flight some of their abundant, sticky pollen that hangs like a necklace from the outstretched filaments. By day one may occasionally find a little fellow asleep in a wilted blossom, which serves him as a tent, under whose flaps the brightest bird eye rarely detects a dinner. After a single night's dissipation the corolla wilts, hangs a while, then drops from the maturing capsule as if severed with a sharp knife. Few flowers, sometimes only one opens on a spike on a given evening—a plan to increase the chances of cross-fertilization between distinct plants; but there is a very long succession of bloom. If a flower has not been pollenized during the night it remains open a while in the morning. Bumblebees now burry in, and an occasional humming bird takes a sip of nectar. Toward the end of summer, when so much seed has been set that the flower can afford to be generous, it distinctly changes its habit and keeps open house all day.