Catchfly flowers are members of the genus Silene and are usually described as annuals, biennials or short-lived perennials. They are enjoyed for their colorful flowers that appear in the late spring until the first frost of the season. Most species are completely covered with fine hairs. The common name catchfly is derived from the sticky substance the plant secretes on its surfaces that prevents insects from feeding. Most of the species are prolific self seeders both in the garden and in their wild habitat. Several species are native to California and the West Coast, but some non-native species have established themselves within the state.
The red or cardinal catchfly (scientific name Silene laciniata) is native to the American Southwest and Mexico, including California, where it is often found on the sides of dry hill slopes along the coastline and interior valleys. It is a small perennial herb that grows up to three feet tall and has one-inch wide flowers on the ends of slender stalks. The flowers are bright red to pink and have deep cuts in the petals, making them look star-shaped.
Red catchfly can be grown in USDA zones 6 through 9 and is often used in a hanging container or as a garden border. It attracts hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden. Plant in full sun to partial shade and let the plant dry out between waterings.
The Sweet-William catchfly, also known as none-so-pretty (scientific name Silene armeria) is native to Europe but has spread to most of the United States and Canada, including California. It's distribution throughout California is thought to be due to seeds from cultivated garden plants. It is an annual plant that grows up to two feet high and has clusters of bright magenta-colored flowers in the mid- to- late summer. It likes full sun and is adaptable to most types of well draining soils. It can tolerate cold winter temperatures but will die off to the ground after the first frost of the season. It is suitable for USDA zones 3 through 10, which includes all of California.
The common catchfly (scientific name Silene gallica) is an annual that develops woody stems. It grows to about 12 inches tall and has small white flowers on branched flower spikes. Each flower has five petals that have a deep cleft down the center. It grows in interior valleys in full sun and is very drought tolerant.
The common catchfly is not often grown for ornamental purposes, but it is suitable for USDA zone 9, which is most of the coast and interior valleys of California. It cannot tolerate snow, but can survive conditions down to the mid-twenties. It is most often seen in disturbed areas and along wildlife trails in California.