Jim Pearson: The Purple Fumitory

Fumaria purpurea (Dr Phil Smith)


Purple Ramping-fumitory is a nationally scarce and endemic to the UK, the only place it grows naturally in the world. It is an annual plant which used to be widespread in the mixed farming and arable areas of Britain. However, during the last 50 years it has undergone a drastic decline throughout its former range largely  due to modern farming methods such as the move to autumn sown cropping and  the introduction of broad-spectrum herbicides which threaten its continued existence. It has also declined in areas where there has been high arable reversion to grassland. Recent records of the plant are mainly concentrated in the west of the country, near the coasts of Cornwall and Lancashire, notably north Lancashire, the Fylde, West Lancashire and north Merseyside. However, it rarely seems to persist at any given locality. In Ireland it is mainly scattered along the east coast. It has been recorded a few times in the Channel Islands. It  favours free-draining sandy loam soils such as are found found in arable and horticultural field margins and also in hedge banks and other disturbed places or in habitats opened up by summer drought.

It is classified as ‘Nationally Scarce’ (found in < 100 10-km squares), but not currently considered to be at risk of extinction in the wild. The species is also listed as a Priority Species under the UK Biodiversity Act.

Since 1995, small, transient populations of Purple Ramping-fumitory have been
located in north Merseyside at Southport, Churchtown, Crossens, Ainsdale, Formby, Little Crosby, Rainford Junction, Garston Gasworks, Lydiate, Maghull and Anfield Cemetery. The records were from disturbed ground or the edges of arable fields. In many cases, return visits to the sites did not rediscover plants. It is often the case that Purple Ramping-fumitory often does not persist at any given location although it will often re-occur in the general area provided suitable habitats exist. 

Currently at Merseyside Biobank we have only 47 records the last  dating to 2017. Due to the sporadic nature of its occurrence, it is difficult to assess whether Purple Ramping-fumitory is actually declining in the region. There are documented records from 1803 to the present day. The problem is exacerbated because it is difficult to distinguish Fumaria species from each other and therefore Purple Ramping-fumitory is frequently overlooked and under-recorded

Purple Ramping-fumitory is a scandant (climbing) plant which scrambles up through hedges to sunbathe on top and it can also be found sprawling across the ground.

It bears up to 24 purple flowers, between 10 to 13 mm long,  borne, in a short spike, on stalks (petioles) which bend-over downwards for the flowers at the bottom of the spike and gradually point upwards for those near the top. They point, haphazardly, in all directions. The tubular corolla (the upper - and shorter - part of the flower) has pinkish petals with a deep red to black tip and a fairly straight back. Although neither is a fool-proof identifying feature.
Each flower has two shield-shaped sepals on each side; these are white, 4.5  -  6.5 mm long by about 3 mm wide with a pale-green longitudinal strip; they are, at least half as long as the corolla tube. Each sepal is attached to the flower at only one point. The sepals have irregular, round teeth located mostly at the more-rounded rear; they are longer than those of Common Ramping-fumitory with an almost rectangular section in the middle.

Flowering times can vary but peak time is from mid-April to early August. In the Scottish Borders flowering can be as late as October.

The fruits are produced on downward curved pedicels. As the purple ramping-fumitory resembles others in the family, it has been somewhat overlooked by botanists, and not a lot is known about the plant.

The leaves form three or five lobes, arranged alternately up the stems.

Notes on fumitories
Common Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) is a plant that has followed humans as a weed in fields and gardens for centuries. The herb has been used as an herbal medicine since times of the Roman Empire or even before that and from the Middle Ages to the 18th century it played a prominent part in traditional herbal medicine.

The Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides (40 – 90 AD) mentions the herb in his “De Materia Medica”, an important document on botany and pharmaceuticals and Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) wrote in his last work “Naturalis Historia” that rubbing the eyes with the sap or latex of fumitory produces tears in the same manner as acrid smoke.

Botanist, physician and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616 – 1654)  said of Fumitory that it 'helps such as are itchy and scabbed, clears the skin, opens stoppings of the liver and spleen, helps rickets, hypochondriac melancholy, madness, frenzies.'

Poet John Clare (1793-1864) wrote:

'And Fumitory too, a name
Which superstition holds to fame,
Whose red and purple mottled flowers
Are dropped by maids in weeding hours,
To boil in water, milk, and whey,
For washes on a holiday,
To make their beauty fair and sleek,
And scare the tan from summer's cheek.'