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Common Fumitory

Fumaria officinalis

  • Name also: Earth Smoke
  • Family: Poppy Family – Papaveraceae
    (formerly Fumitory Family – Fumariaceae)
  • Growing form: Annual herb.
  • Height: 20–30 cm (8–12 in.). Stem ascending–erect, quite abundantly branched.
  • Flower: Corolla irregular (zygomorphic), light purplish with blackish tip, 7–9 mm (0.28–0.36 in.) long. Petals 4, of which two inner petals partly united, uppermost with short, pouch-like spur. Sepals 2, with irregularly toothed margins, soon falling. Stamens 6 in 2 groups, each with 1 whole and 2 half stamens. Gynoecium composed of 2 fused carpels. Inflorescence an approx. 20-flowered raceme. Subtending bracts small, scaly.
  • Leaves: Alternate, stalked. Blade usually bipinnate, leaflets narrowly lobed, lobes lanceolate.
  • Fruit: With notched tip, 2–2.5 mm (0.08–0.1 in.) long, achene slightly wider than long.
  • Habitat: Gardens, fields, waste ground, shores.
  • Flowering time: July–August.

Common fumitory has been used medicinally, as can be seen from its old Finnish name and its scientific species name officinalis. A century and a half ago folk medicine was highly nuanced, and common fumitory was used to treat stomach and gall problems, haemorrhoids, migraines, bad blood, and a host of other conditions. Folk healers had to be very careful with common fumitory: its stems are poisonous and the fumarin that they contain can affect patients very differently in different dosages. An overdose is always fatal because it paralyses the respiratory system. Other uses have also been found for the plant: its generic name Fumaria comes from the Latin word fumus, ’smoke’, and at least Germanic witches used to throw stems on the fire to invite spirits from the underworld.

Nowadays common fumitory is generally regarded as a weed, although its red flowers make it an attractive annual in fields and gardens. The species’ seeds germinate early in the spring and the plant might begin to flower already in June. It can stand frost long into the autumn. Despite being common, the plant hides itself so well among other vegetation that it isn’t easy to find. It often goes unnoticed by insects too and has to self-pollinate in order to produce seeds.

On the Åland Islands there is a certain clearing in Saltvik where another fumitory species, F. vaillantii, grows. This looks very similar to common fumitory, but it is more fragile and more bluish grey than its common relative. Its flowers are clearly smaller, rarely over 0.5 cm (0.2 in.) long, and are a paler shade of red. Additionally, the tip of its roundish achene isn’t dimpled like common fumitory’s.

Other species from the same family

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