The dashing Lord Percy and his little scarlet flower

`THIS is the scarlet pimpernel,'' said the nature guide, pointing to a tiny flower at our feet along the southern California park trail. A flower is rarely shocking, but this one was. For years I had associated the name ``scarlet pimpernel'' with that dashing fictional hero created by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. His daring rescues of innocent victims of the French Revolution and his double life as the elegant Lord Percy Blakeney and the mysterious ``Scarlet Pimpernel'' kept him popular with British and American readers for generations. In fact, I had only recently seen a rescreening of the story on television.

Blakeney had earned the title of ``Scarlet Pimpernel'' because he signed the mocking notes he left for the outwitted revolutionaries with the little star-shaped flower. All the characters in the book recognized the flower as the scarlet pimpernel. The author describes it only as ``a humble wayside flower.''

My introduction to it confirmed that description: About the size of a dime, it had five petals, and the blossoms grew in pairs along a vining stem. But it was coral, not scarlet! Humble, though - so humble I wondered why it was chosen to symbolize such a high-class adventurer.

Was the flower elusive? It had certainly eluded me for decades, but was this a common experience? It seems not. A little sleuthing through botanical sources turned up the remark, by Edward Step in ``Wayside and Woodland Blossoms'' (1906, one year after the publication of ``The Scarlet Pimpernel''), that ``Everybody who knows anything of our wildflowers - even in the most restricted sense - is acquainted with the Scarlet Pimpernel.'' The pimpernel had been around in England since the days of the Romans, pointed out Winifred Pennington in ``The History of British Vegetation'' (1974).

But, of course, there were other flowers common enough for everybody to recognize; that couldn't be a sufficient reason for the choice.

The English version of the pimpernel was scarlet, however, for the most part. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1874 Sir Edmund Gosse wrote of the pimpernel, ``Except the corn poppy, this is said to be the only scarlet flower we have.'' So if Baroness Orczy, writing just 30 years later, wanted a red flower to associate with the bloody French Revolution, she might not have had a large choice.

Maybe the name ``pimpernel'' itself meant something intriguing. The OED traces it back to the Latin pipinella, probably a corruption of bipinella, or two-winged, referring to the pairing of the leaves on the stems. No help there. The Greek name for pimpernel, however, is anagallis, made up of ana (again) and agallo (to adorn). That might suggest the repeated drawings of the flower on the taunting notes. Unlikely, I thought.

I checked other characteristics of the plant for hints. All the botanical descriptions agree that the scarlet pimpernel is a glabrous (hairless), diffusely branched annual, almost prostrate, with flat, five-petaled flowers about one-half inch across and smooth, ovate leaves, usually opposite. It is native to Europe, having become naturalized in North America - ``often becoming a nuisance,'' one author sniffed. The flowers - mostly scarlet in England, although occasionally white or bluish - have become ``mostly salmon'' in California, according to Philip Munz in ``A Flora of Southern California.''

The flower books also note that the pimpernel has a habit of closing late in the afternoon or in bad weather, earning it such names as ``shepherd's clock'' or ``poor man's weatherglass.'' This trait didn't seem to fit with the style of a man who virtually flowered under bad circumstances and usually carried out his missions in the dark. Perhaps it hinted at elusiveness, but I needed a stronger reason than this for its choice.

NOT until I stumbled on ``The Lady's Book of Flowers and Poetry,'' by Lucy Hooper (1858), did I find it. Hooper lists popular meanings for flowers: For the pimpernel she gives ``symbol of assignation.'' One meaning of ``assignation'' is ``the arrangements of a time and place for an interview or tryst.'' Such arrangements were crucial to the Scarlet Pimpernel's operations: Those marked for death were given directions for trysts shrouded in secrecy and generally accomplished only after a few hair-raising pages. Readers of the early 20th century may have been more familiar with floral symbolism than are we today. ``Say It With Flowers'' is about the extent of our romantic associations with plants, so it is little wonder that the significance of the pimpernel required such extensive tracking down.

It's some satisfaction to have arrived at a reasonable guess as to why the baroness represented her hero as ``the scarlet pimpernel''; but the mystery remains as to why the flower turned from scarlet to salmon when it reached North America. That's one for the plant biologists to solve.

Meanwhile we can be grateful that the original flower with which the author was familiar was scarlet. No hero could have succeeded with a title like ``The Salmon Pimpernel.''

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