The genus consists of about 20 species that include both biennials and perennials. Lychnis is Latin for "lamp" which may refer to the use of leaves as wicks in oil lamps or may apply to the bright colored flowers.

The genus resembles Silene but is distinguished by having 5 styles while Silene has 3. Also, its capsule opening has 5 teeth while those of Silene have 6.

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