This was a plant my mother chose for the new garden, so there would be some white in among the purples and golds everyone favors. She told me it was called Obedient plant, and brought six of them. Of course, I thought, what a boring name; I’ll never remember that. It turns out that Physostegia virginiana is much more interesting, right down to its other common name: false dragonhead.
Getting Acquainted Belatedly
So. Physostegia. How ya doin’? My mother knew nothing about this plant, save what the tag in the garden center said, which turns out to be somewhat misleading. My goal today is to provide actual information for people who are not botanists, so I’ll use common terms or define what I mean if there’s no alternative.
It’s a native plant to North America, with a range spreading from Manitoba in the north to northern Mexico in the south, and a member of the mint family (Lamiacieae). All mint family members spread, some more virulently than others. Some, like Bee Balm (monarda) send out smaller plants and then the parent plant dies back.
False dragonhead. That’s a common name I’ll remember, and refers to a resemblance to another plant of that name, which is native to Europe. It’s called obedient, because the original plant stays where you put it or push it. It can have a tendency towards floppiness, which you can control via pruning. Hahahaha. Just wait.
You can tell it’s a member of the mint family by looking at the plant stems. They’re square. That’s a diagnostic feature, whether you get a garden cultivar or a wild “weed” species, that all members share. And they are rhizomatus—say that to yourself out loud. It means they spread by rhizomes, roots of a sort, and will take longer to do so than say, mint itself.
Each plant can grow to between two and four feet in height—so much for the 24” to 36” height quoted on the tag, right? They produce spires of flowers, four rows of tightly packed blooms, in late summer to early fall, and come in pink, purple, and white varieties, with white petals sometimes marked by purple spots or stripes.
They bear a resemblance to snapdragons, with their long, tube-shaped flowers and the lower “lip” petals flaring out—a perfect perch for the many native bee species they attract. These are produced and rise above a good, thick foliage of dark green lanceolate (lance-like) leaves that have a toothed or serrated edge.
A Bit of Trivia Never Hurt Anyone.
So, this is a native. You should read that as “wildflower.” That’s why it’s so hardy, and, given its range, I imagine it’s nearly impossible to kill. (What’s up, people who say they’ve got ‘black thumbs.’ Have you met this plant?)
You can find it in meadows, along railway easements, in sand or gravel ‘bars,’ which can be in an existing stream or a relic of past water. It can grow wherever. What it needs is sun—six hours of it. The type of soil doesn’t matter, so long as it isn’t too boggy. It will thrive in clay or sandy soils, nutrient rich or poor.
And it attracts something like six or seven species of native bees, which are as important for food production as honey bees, likely more so. Additionally, it draws hummingbirds and several adult butterfly species.
So, am I displeased to find out it’s a mint family member that I unknowingly allowed to be put in the ground? Absolutely not. I consider it a stroke of luck that my mother thought the flowers were pretty, there in the garden center.
Its flowers have a meaning when put in bouquets—which they are certainly aesthetic enough for that. Bravery. I find that heartening, too, even if it is a bit of useless cultural nonsense that has nothing to do with the actual plants.
With all that taken care of, allow me to welcome you, Physostegia, to the garden. You’ll be competing against other native plants a d a couple of strangers, just to keep things interesting. And, to you, Readers, we’ll cover another plant in the garden the next time we meet.