These “Plain Janes” are not yet plentiful in domestic gardens, but that will change as more gardeners discover their outstanding wildlife value and quiet beauty. They’re easy to grow in moist to dry soils, and they produce hundreds of flowers from May until July that attract an enormous number of pollinators. The small, shiny flowers--ranging in color from yellow to green, purple, brown, maroon, and red--are strongly scented to attract huge numbers of insect pollinators, especially moths that visit at night. An herbaceous perennial, early figwort typically grows 6 feet tall on unbranched, square stems with triangular leaves (aka lance-leaved figwort) and long, open panicles with clusters of tubular-shaped flowers. It flourishes in light shade or full sun but will tolerate mostly shady areas. It spreads by rhizomes and hundreds of extremely light seeds that are released when wind shakes the plant. Because it doesn’t compete well with aggressive species and tends to appear in different places each year, it appears to spread primarily by seed. It grows commonly in the northern parts of North America, especially in the northeastern states, and is often seen in recently burned areas.
The Xerxes Society says that figworts are among the most prolific nectar producers in the plant world. Fair warning--if you walk through a large stand of figworts, expect to emerge with sticky clothes and skin. Nectar secretes from the base of the ovary in continuous drops, and the flowers contain copious amounts of pollen. The flowers attract ruby-throated hummingbirds, honey bees, bumble bees, large wasps, butterflies, moths, flies, and ants. The bees often hug the blossoms with their forefeet and drink the nectar. Smaller bees may simply climb into the little hooded cups. Figwort has been called "bee plant" and “wasp flower," and the Xerces Society has given Scrophularia a special rating for its value to insects – “A plant that attracts predatory or parasitoid insects that prey upon pest insects.” Many gardeners know that a robust wasp population will prey upon aphids, and planting a few figworts in your yard may also keep the wasps away from your picnic.
A close relative, late figwort, looks very similar and blooms a little later, although sometimes the bloom times overlap in different parts of the country. The definitive method of telling them apart is to look at the sterile stamen of each species. Early figwort’s is greenish yellow and wider than it is long, and late figwort’s is purple brown and longer than it is wide.
Native habitats include rich woods, ravines, thickets, stream banks, woodland borders, and savannahs. Early figwort will thrive in rain gardens or along stream banks, and it’s excellent for wildflower and pollinator gardens. Plants should be spaced 2 to 3 feet apart to prevent overcrowding, which can cause death within a year.
Grows 3-6 feet tall and occasionally up to 8 feet.
Prefers full sun or light shade but will grow in up to 70% shade.
Grows in moist to dry, well-drained, loose, rich, sandy soils but adapts to other soils. Flourishes in damp soils.
Flowers bloom May-July and have corollas with 5 rounded lobes; the long upper lobes overhang the flower openings and stamens. Each flower has a green calyx with 5 blunt teeth. The seed capsules are roundish and filled with tiny black seeds. At maturity, the seed capsules split in two.
Green leaves are opposite with short stalks and coated with fine hairs. Shape varies from triangular to lance-shaped with serrated edges.
Stem is erect, stout, mostly hairless, and 4-sided. It changes to a woody texture in fall and persists through winter.
Host plant to 6 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including the vibrant Baltimore checkerspot butterfly pictured here, chalcedony midget moth and the specialist figwort borer moth. The tissues of these plants contain many acrid compounds that help protect the caterpillars and discourage browsing by herbivores.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Iroquois women used tea brewed from the roots for irregular menses and to relieve pain associated with pregnancy. This tea was so effective that it was called “the woman’s friend.” Scrophularia tea was also used for fevers, hemorrhoids, urinary infections, and as a general tonic that treated restlessness, anxiety, insomnia, and muscle spasms.
Early and late figworts have knobby tubers on their roots that resemble hemorrhoids, which were once called “figs.” Thus, the roots of figwort were once used to treat hemorrhoids.
Also known as “heal-all,” figworts contain iridoid glycosides with wound-healing properties; cardiac glycosides, which improve the heart’s pumping capability; antioxidants/antibiotic agents; and anti-inflammatory phenolic acids.
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