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Alpine Enchanter's Nightshade

Circaea alpina

  • Name also: Small Enchanter’s Nightshade, Alpine Enchanter’s-nightshade
  • Family: Willowherb Family – Onagraceae
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. With runners. Forms stands in patches.
  • Height: 5–20 cm (2–8 in.). Stem usually unbranched, virtually glabrous, fragile.
  • Flower: Corolla regular (actinomorphic), white (sometimes pinkish), approx. 3 mm (0.12 in.) broad; petals 2, with notched tips, soon dropping. Sepals 2, ovate, sometimes red-tipped. Stamens 2. Gynoecium composed of a single or 2 fused carpels. Inflorescence a lax, often branched raceme.
  • Leaves: Opposite, quite long-stalked, becoming smaller towards top. Blade ovate, cordate-based, sparsely toothed, glabrous, shiny, thin.
  • Fruit: Narrowly obovate, hairy achene.
  • Habitat: Broad-leaved forests, rich mixed swamps, stream banks, springs.
  • Flowering time: July.

Alpine enchanter’s nightshade’s scientific name Circaea is in honour of the ancient Greek mythological spirit and wizard Kirke, who enchanted Ulysses and magically turned his crew into pigs in Homer’s epic. This enchantment is referred to in its name, and its habitat in dark spruce thickets, often hiding under ferns, carries a definite air of mystery. It shies away from the sun and is most likely to be found on rather damp northern slopes in hollows in broad-leaved forests and sometimes in rich mixed swamps or among coastal ferns.

Plants that are believed to have magic powers have captured people’s imaginations for centuries. Alpine enchanter’s nightshade has probably been regarded as a magic plant, but no information about its use in witchcraft has survived. Witches’ work as poison-mixers and healers was generally done at night, and the Church tried to eradicate belief in all kinds of magic. Collecting alpine enchanter’s nightshade from the wild would not have harmed it at all – rather it has been harmed much more by modern phenomena such as the decline of forest agriculture and clearing work. Alpine enchanter’s nightshade grows in almost all of Finland, although it is only common in certain places in the south. In northern Finland there are fragmented stands in Kuusamo, Muonio and Salla.

Despite its rather grand name, the plant itself is somewhat modest: low-growing, green, thin-leaved and small-flowered. Alpine enchanter’s nightshade’s flower lacks nectar so it doesn’t attract many insects: the pollen is often released while the flower is still a bud, so it falls onto its own stigmas. Most often the plant spreads vegetatively through its subterraneous runners and it forms a large amount of clones of a single plant. The fruit has hooked hairs and drops easily onto passing animals or people.

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