Many people of my age can complete the quote, ‘They seek him here, they seek him there,… that demned (Baroness Orczy wouldn’t swear) elusive Pimpernel.’  Well, ‘he’ can be found around the streets of Sidmouth from now until the autumn, but only if you seek ‘him’. 

Scarlet Pimpernel is a small weed of arable fields but it has invaded built up England and its scarlet, star-shaped flowers can be seen at the edge of road verges and the cracks where walls meet pavements, and the flowers are both male and female.  

The five-petalled flowers are quite delightful but not always scarlet, they range from blue to lilac to pinkie white.  I have not seen any colour variants around Sidmouth but the blue form was recorded in Dr Cullen’s 1849 plant list as an occasional find.  

The flowers are very obvious if, like me, you walk about looking down at the wild flowers at your feet, but only sometimes.  Also known as the poor man’s hourglass, they only open in the morning, and then on sunny days.  They close after lunch and become very difficult to see even if you are looking for them.  

In Victorian times there was a language of flowers, different blooms could be used to add symbolic meanings to a gift.  The ability to tell the time and the ability to hide in plain sight led to Scarlet Pimpernel being a symbol of a secret assignation, and this is thought to be why Baroness Orczy chose the flower for Sir Percy Blakeney.

The name Pimpernel derives from ‘like a small pepper’, the seed pods look very much like a peppercorn, but don’t try tasting them, they are bitter and slightly poisonous.  Like many successful ‘weeds’, Pimpernel has chemical defences that deter insects from eating it and other plants crowding it out.  Perhaps this quiet method of dealing with the opposition also played a part for in Sir Percy’s character.

Scarlet Pimpernel can cope with the harsh environment of our pavements, but its two cousins, Bog and Yellow Pimpernel need wet conditions.  As the name suggest, Bog Pimpernel lives in boggy meadows.  It was living on Salcombe Hill in 1849 but it seems to have fallen victim to modern land drainage and hasn’t been recorded in our flower list, yet.   Yellow Pimpernel, just as delightful as its Scarlet cousin, lives in damp woodland and can be found at several sites around the head of the valley, if you seek it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *