Pimpernel, ScaraletBotanical Name: Anagallis arvensis (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Primulaceae
Synonyms: Shepherd's Barometer. Poor Man's Weatherglass. Adder's Eyes.
(Old English) Bipinella.
Parts Used: Leaves, herb.
Habitat: The Scarlet Pimpernel grows on the roadside in waste places and on the dry sandy edges of corn and other fields; it is widely distributed, not only over Britain, but throughout the world, being found in all the temperate regions in both hemispheres.
Description: Its creeping, square stems, a foot in length at most, have their eggshaped, stalkless leaves arranged in pairs. The edges of the leaves are entire (i.e. quite free from indentations of any sort), and in whatever direction the stem may run, either along the ground, or at an angle to it, the leaves always keep their faces turned to the light.
The Pimpernel flowers from May until late into August. The flowers appear singly, each on longish, thin stalks, springing from the junction of each leaf with the stem. The little flower-stalks are erect during flowering, but curved backward when the seed is ripening. The corolla is made up of five petals, joined together at their base into a ring. A purple spot often appears in the centre of the flower. The petals are very sensitive, the flowers closing at once if the sky becomes overcast and threatens rain. Even in bright weather, the flowers are only open for a comparatively short time - never opening until between eight and nine in the morning and shutting up before three o'clock in the afternoon. As the petals are only brilliantly coloured on their upper faces, the flowers when closed disappear from view among the greenness of the leaves.
Inside the petals are five stamens, each standing exactly opposite to a petal. Upon the stamens are a number of delicate, violet hairs, which seem to serve as a bait to insects, taking the place, perhaps, of honey, of which the Pimpernel has none.
As the autumn comes on, the fruit in the centre of each flower swells and ripens. It is in the form of a little urn or capsule, full of tiny seeds. When the latter are quite ripe, the urn splits round its circumference into two halves - the upper half lifts up like a lid and the seeds are shaken out with every movement of the wind.
Propagation is entirely by seeds, as the plant is an annual, completely dying at the end of each season, both above and below ground.
A blue variety of an intense deep colour is occasionally found in Great Britain, and more commonly in central and southern Europe. A number of scientific experiments have been made on these blue and red Pimpernels by Darwin, Henslow and others. Henslow found that of the offspring of the blue, some had red and some blue petals, while Darwin discovered that by crossing the red and blue, some of the offspring were red, some blue, and some an intermediate colour. Gerard thought that the scarlet variety was the male plant, and that the blue was the female.
This blue variety (Anagallis cerulea) is described as growing in beautiful little tufts about the hills of Madeira.
The common variety (A. arvensis) is mentioned in lists of plants growing in Persia, Nepaul, China, New Holland, Mauritius, Cape of Good Hope, Japan, Egypt, Abyssinia, U.S.A., Mexico, and Chile. It is to be found in all the temperate regions in both hemispheres, but shuns the Arctic cold and hardly bears more than the sub-tropical heat.
Occasionally flesh-coloured and pure white blossoms have been found as varieties of this plant.
The plant appears in the Herbals and Vocabularies of the sixteenth century as 'Bipinella,' a name originally applied to the Great and Salad Burnet. It was much used as a cosmetic herb. Howard, in The Old Commodore, 1837, says: 'If she'd only used my pimpernel water, for she has one monstrous freckle in her forehead.' The plant was also said to be a remedy for the bites of mad dogs and to dispel sadness. This plant once had a great reputation in medicine, and was used as a universal panacea. 'No heart can think, no tongue can tell The virtues of the Pimpernel.' Pliny speaks of its value in liver complaints, and its generic name Anagallis (given it by Dioscorides) is derived from the Greek Anagelao, signifying 'to laugh,' because it removes the depression that follows liver troubles.
The Greeks used it for diseases of the eye, and Gerard and Culpepper affirm that 'it helpeth them that are dim-sighted,' the juice being mixed with honey and dropped into the eyes.
It is 'a gallant, Solar herb, of a cleansing attractive quality, whereby it draweth forth thorns and splinters gotten into the flesh.'
'Used inwardly and applied outwardly,' Culpepper tells us, 'it helpeth also all stinging and biting of venomous beasts or mad dogs.'
And again, 'the distilled water or juice is much celebrated by French dames to cleanse the skin from any roughness, deformity or discolourings thereof.'
Another old writer says 'the Herb Pimpernel is good to prevent witchcraft, as Mother Bumby doth affirm.'
Part Used: The whole herb, gathered in the wild condition, when the leaves are at their best, in June, and used both fresh and dried.
Pimpernel has no odour, but a bitter taste, which is rather astringent.
Constituents: The plant possesses very active properties, although its virtues are not fully understood. It is known to contain Saponin, such as the Soapwort also specially furnishes.
The leaves are sufficiently inert to be eaten in salads, of which they often form a component part in France and Germany, but Professor Henslow tells us that caged birds have died from eating them instead of Chickweed, which it somewhat resembles.
Experiments have shown that it contains some injurious properties which neither drying nor boiling destroys. Though too small to be eaten in quantities by browsing animals, an extract made from it has been found to have a strong narcotic effect on them and to be of such a poisonous nature as to cause the deaths of some dogs to whom it was experimentally given in considerable doses.
Medicinal Action and Uses: Diuretic, diaphoretic and expectorant. The ancient reputation of Scarlet Pimpernel has survived to the present day, especially in dealing with diseases of the brain. Doctors have considered the herb remedial in melancholy and in the allied forms of mental disease, the decoction or a tincture being employed.
John Hill (British Herbal, 1756) tells us that the whole plant, dried and powdered, is good against epilepsy, and there are well authenticated accounts of this disease being absolutely cured by it. The flowers alone have also been found useful in epilepsy, 20 grains dried being given four times a day.
It is of a cordial sudorific nature, and a strong infusion of it has been considered an excellent medicine in feverish complaints, which it relieves by promoting a gentle perspiration. It was recommended by Culpepper on this account as a preservative in pestilential and contagious diseases. The same simple preparation has also been much used among country people in the first stages of pulmonary consumption, it being stated to have often checked the disorder and prevented its fatal consequences.
The dried leaves may be given in powder, or an infusion made of the whole plant dried but according to Green (Universal Herbal, 1832) nothing equals the infusion of the fresh plant.
The expressed juice has been found serviceable in the beginnings of dropsies and in obstructions of the liver and spleen. A tincture has also been used for irritability of the urinary passages, having been found effective in cases of stone and gravel.
In Gerard's days, a preparation of this herb, called 'Diacorallion,' was used for gout, and in California a fluid extract is given for rheumatism, in doses of 1 teaspoonful with water, three times a day.
Modern authorities consider that caution should be exercised in the use of this herb for dropsy, rheumatic affections, hepatic and renal complaints.
The tincture is made from the fresh leaves, in the proportion of 10 OZ. to a pint of diluted alcohol; the dose is from 1 to 5 drops. A homoeopathic tincture is also prepared from the flowers.
The powder of the dried leaves is given in 15 to 60 grain doses.
The seeds of the plant, which are very numerous, and enclosed in small capsules, are much eaten by birds.
Gerard speaks of the 'pimpernel rose in a pasture as you goe from a village hard by London called Knightsbridge unto Fulham, a village thereby.'