Should I plant scarlet pimpernel?

Should I plant scarlet pimpernel?

It is commonly known as a weed, but scarlet pimpernel has an interesting story so I am mightily tempted to plant it. Am I mad?


Known to botanists as Anagallis arvensis, the scarlet pimpernel has been around for centuries. I am a trustee of Bromley House library in Nottingham which has a first edition Gerard’s herbal and a copy of Deering’s 1738 catalogue of plants growing around Nottingham. Scarlet pimpernel appears in both.

Gerard recommends it for pain relief – “it cures the tooth-ach being snift up into the nosethrils”. I am not sure that is a good idea. Some warn its leaves are poisonous and an irritant, and we are advised to wear gloves to handle it. (It’s not sounding very attractive, but stick with me!) Deering tells us:

“Some will have it a Remedy against the Plague, and some boast of its distilled water being wonderfully helpful in restoring mad people to their senses, all of which is rather to be wished than expected from this plant.”

Left: Cover of the 1908 edition of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. Right Fred Terry as Sir Percy Blakeney/“The Scarlet Pimpernel” in the 1905 West End theatre production


Of course, most people when they think of scarlet pimpernel, think of the famous book by Baroness Orczy in which an apparently goofy, rich English fop leads daring raids to France to rescue French aristocrats from the guillotine. He repeatedly escapes capture from angry French revolutionaries – “they seek him here they seek him there” and all that. He signs his letters with a small drawn pimpernel, hence his nickname.

Less well known is the fact that this book was a play first. And it first opened at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal in 1903 – just a stone’s throw from Bromley House. The lead actors, star couple John Terry and his wife Julia Neilson, were famous for performing swashbuckling romances. Contemporary reviews I can find seem positive, but this blog suggests the performances were not a success. If true, the discerning audiences of Nottingham did the Baroness a favour.

In response, Orczy and her co-author husband, Henry Barstow, re-wrote the last act. They staged the play again in the West End at the beginning of 1905. Here it received sneering comments from critics, but they had to acknowledge its popular appeal.

“They [Orzcy and Barstow] may not, perhaps, aim very high so far as the psychology, the plausibility, and the literary quality of their work was concerned, but they hit with unerring accuracy their mark in its exciting interest…” The Observer 8 Jan 1905

The play was so successful publishers quickly accepted Orczy’s book manuscript.

You may have got distracted at this point and be wondering if she really was an actual Baroness. Emma Magdalena Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála Orczy de Orci – Emmuska to friends – was the daughter of Hungarian aristocracy. So, yes.

She wrote a dozen sequels to the Scarlet Pimpernel. And the character arguably went on to inspire many of today’s masked superheroes, including, perhaps, Batman.

Weather forecaster

Scarlet pimpernel has many common names. One you will see is “Poor man’s weathervane” or “Shepherd’s weatherglass”. The flowers close up when it is overcast, heralding rain. The fact that it is overcast, might be a more obvious clue as to what is to come. And they close anyway from mid afternoon till about 7am the following day. So I am not sure even a poor man had need of the plant for that service.

The plant was known as a weed on corn fields. And Garden Organic warns: “Scarlet pimpernel is poisonous if ingested by man, dogs and horses. Under normal conditions animals are unlikely to consume sufficient of the plant to suffer injury. Scarlet pimpernel may cause dermatitis if handled.”

Anagallis arvensis (Scarlet Pimpernel) has small, solitary, orange to scarlet or occasionally blue flowers. (Image: Gaia Leo, CC BY-SA 4.0)

This is strange as on the continent it is recommended as a salad leaf! Other hints that it may not be quite so bad is that several nurseries will sell you seeds. And the RHS describes it as “a low-growing, creeping annual with stems to 30cm long and small, solitary, orange to scarlet or occasionally blue flowers, 10-15mm in diameter.” No danger warnings there!

If anyone has grown it without having it invade their garden and bring their hands out in welts do let me know! In an age where we encourage weeds in our lawn, I wondered if it might be an interesting addition to the mix.

Banner image: Franco Folini from San Francisco, CC BY-SA 2.0

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden history blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.