Usually listed as a biennial plant, but this destinction blurs in mediterranean climates. Growing easily from seed with the fall rains, the tuft of soft gray-green leaves gains in size through the winter, gradually giving way to upright stems of bright carmine, rose, or white flowers in spring. If left to its own, these will produce interesting, upright, chalice-like pods, opening at their top and distributing the small dark seeds with even a casual brush of the stiff stems. It may also die in the effort. When the spent flower stems and their developing pods are removed, the bloom is easily extended into summer and possibly extending the life of the plant another year. But in any case, there will likely be a few seedlings to replace the original plants.
Ancient oil lamp
The old genus name, Lychnis, come from the Greek lychnos which means 'a source of light' or 'lamp', alluding to the use of the felt-like leaves as lamp wicks by the ancients. So this plant has been known for centuries and was often cultivated close at hand for the above purpose (though I expect the showy flowers were always welcomed). It has naturalized modestly in various places of the world likely due to this use.
The alternative name, Dusty Miller, is also applied to several several other, otherwise unrelated plants with fuzzy, gray leaves. The gruesome English names of 'bloody Mary' and 'bloody William' would seem to allude to red flowers representing drops of Protestant blood (Mary I) or bloodshed in general in the other. Its an easy guess that the deep red color of the flowers inspire these names. This makes me wonder if the link of Silene with Silenus refers to the red flowers representing drops of spilt wine from a night of mythical drunken debauchery.
In winter it consists only of the large wooly basal leaves are bluish-white in color. These very much resemble Lamb's Ears, but thinner and with slight undulations. They also remind some of other grey-leafed plants that go under the name 'dusty miller', so it has also earned than name. In spring it sends up furry-leafed stalks to three feet tall which by late May have begun to produce the brightest crimson, magenta, to rose-pink blossoms. Many flowers are produced in sequence from a single branched stem, so if can be difficult to know when/if to dead-head — the best one can do is prune out those stems which have the most flowers past in oder to improve the general appearance.
A number of garden varieties are available, such as:
The pure white 'Alba' is very striking and comes true from seed.
'Occulata' has a blush center which which may gradually fade in warmer temperatures, or fail to appear in cooler temperatures.
The double flowered 'Gardener's World' is sterile and so must be propagated vegetatively.
The strident red-magenta color of the flowers either entice or repulse gardeners. They can certainly be dazzling in combination with saturated oranges and other magentas, and the grey foliage helps add a cool compliment to such a mix. The pure white form is almost 'classic' in its tastefulness, adding form and textural interest to a restrained palette. Or any of these forms can mix effortlessly into a meadow or cottage garden setting.
I'd just like to share an observation and make a recommendation. Quite by accident, I've discovered that Rose Campion makes a wonderful foliage plant for dry shade. In my garden, it outperforms the similar-foliaged Stachys byzantina in this situation, has (to my mind) a more attractive form, and requires less supplemental watering.
It has self-seeded under my deciduous fruit trees, and looks good year-round. It competes well with tree roots and will grow right up next to the trunks of the trees.
The ever-gray clumps have endured for several years and more appear every year. Although it flowers less in this situation than in full sun, the foliage alone makes it worth the minimal effort it takes to establish.
The confusion about the lychnis may stem from how we in the West percieve the idea of a wick as being part of a candle, where in the East that is not always the case. In Greece, devotional lamps are filled with olive oil and the wicks are floated on the oil. A wick made from a plant (there are other kinds, too) has a skirt of leaves that keep it afloat, and part of the stem below to feed oil to the upper part. When lit, it creates a small 'perpetual' flame.
Greeks use the word lychnari [λυχνάρι] to mean this type of lamp. They are still used today, mainly in small roadside iconostasis memorial shrines-or in households when the power goes out!
I have several oil lamps from Yemen, and these are also used with oil. The alabaster ones may be hung, and the illumination from the circle of wicks can keep a room dimly lit.