Figwort Family

Great Mullein; Velvet or Flannel Plant; Mullein Dock;

Aaron’s Rod

Verbascum Thapsus

Flowers—Yellow, 1 in. across or less, seated around a thick, dense, elongated spike. Calyx 5-parted; corolla of 5 rounded lobes; 5 anther-bearing stamens, the 3 upper ones short, woolly; 1 pistil. Stem: Stout, 2 to 7 ft. tall, densely woolly, with branched hairs. Leaves: Thick, pale green, velvety-hairy, oblong, in a rosette on the ground; others alternate, strongly clasping the stem.

Preferred Habitat—Dry fields, banks, stony waste land.

Flowering Season—June—September.

Distribution—Minnesota and Kansas, eastward to Nova Scotia and Florida. Europe.

Leaving the fluffy thistle-down he has been kindly scattering to the four winds, the goldfinch spreads his wings for a brief, undulating flight, singing in waves also as he goes to where tall, thick-set mullein stalks stand like sentinels above the stony pasture. Here companies of the exquisite little black and yellow minstrels delight to congregate with their sombre families and feast on the seeds that rapidly follow the erratic flowers up the gradually lengthening spikes.

“I have come three thousand miles to see the mullein cultivated in a garden, and christened the velvet plant,” says John Burroughs in “An October Abroad.” But even in England it grows wild, and much more abundantly in southern Europe, while its specific name is said to have been given it because it was so common in ‘the neighbor-hood of Thapsus; but whether the place of that name in Africa, or the Sicilian town mentioned by Ovid and Virgil, is not certain. Strange that Europeans should labor under the erroneous impression that this mullein is native to America, whereas here it is only an immigrant from their own land. Rapidly taking its course of empire west-ward from our seaports into which the seeds smuggled their passage among the ballast, it is now more common in the Eastern states, perhaps, than any native. Forty or more folk-names have been applied to it, mostly in allusion to its alleged curative powers, its use for candle-wick and funeral torches in the Middle Ages. The generic title, first used by Pliny, is thought to be a corruption of Barbascum( = with beards) in allusion to the hairy filaments or, as some think, to the leaves.

Of what use is this felt-like covering to the plant? The importance of protecting the delicate, sensitive, active cells from intense light, draught, or cold, have led various plants to various practices; none more common, however, than to develop hairs on the epidermis of their leaves, sometimes only enough to give it a downy appearance, sometimes to coat it with felt:, as in this case, where the hairs branch and interlace. Fierce sunlight in the exposed dry situations where the mullein grows; prolonged drought, which often occurs at flowering season, when the perpetuation of the species is at stake; and the intense cold which the exquisite rosettes formed by year-old plants must endure through a winter before they can send up a flower-stalk the second spring–these trials the wellscreened, juicy, warm plant has successfully surmounted through its coat of felt. Humming birds have been detected gathering the hairs to line their tiny nests. The light, strong stalk makes almost as good a cane as bamboo, especially when the root end, in running under a stone, forms a crooked handle. Pale country beauties rub their cheeks with the velvety leaves to make them rosy.

Moth Mullein

Verbascum Blattaria

Flowers—Yellow, or frequently white, 5-parted, about 1 in. broad, marked with brown; borne on spreading pedicles in a long, loose raceme; all the filaments with violet hairs; 1 protruding pistil. Stem: Erect, slender, simple, about 2 ft. high, sometimes less, or much taller. Leaves: Seldom present at flowering time; oblong to ovate, toothed, mostly sessile, smooth.

Preferred Habitat—Dry, open waste land; roadsides, fields. Flowering Season—June—November. Distribution—Naturalized from Europe and Asia, more or less common throughout the United States and Canada.

“Of beautiful weeds quite a long list might be made without including any of the so-called wild flowers,” says John Burroughs. “A favorite of mine is the little Moth Mullein that blooms along the highway, and about the fields, and maybe upon the edge of the lawn.” Even in winter, when the slender stem, set with round brown seed-vessels, rises above the snow, the plant is pleasing to the human eye, as it is to that of hungry birds.

Butter-and-eggs; Yellow Toadflax; Eggs-and-bacon;

Flaxweed; Brideweed

Linaria vulgaris

Flowers—Light canary yellow and orange, 1 in. long or over, irregular, borne in terminal, leafy-bracted spikes. Corolla spurred at the base, 2-lipped, the upper lip erect, 2-lobed; the lower lip spreading, 3-lobed, its base an orange-colored palate closing the throat; 4 stamens in pairs within; 1 pistil. Stem. 1 to 3 ft. tall, slender, leafy. Leaves: Pale, grass-like.

Preferred Habitat—Waste land, roadsides, banks, fields. Flowering Season—June—October. Distribution—Nebraska and Manitoba, eastward to Virginia and Nova Scotia. Europe and Asia.

An immigrant from Europe, this plebeian perennial, meekly content with waste places, is rapidly inheriting the earth. Its beautiful spikes of, butter-colored cornucopias, apparently holding the yolk of a diminutive egg, emit a cheesy odor, suggesting a close dairy. Perhaps half the charm of the plant—and its charms increase greatly when it is grown in a garden—consists in the pale bluish-green grass-like leaves with a bloom on the surface, which are put forth so abundantly from the sterile shoots.

Blue or Wild Toadflax; Blue Linaria

Linaria canadensis

Flowers—Pale blue to purple, small, irregular, in slender spikes. Calyx 5-pointed; corolla 2-lipped, with curved spur longer than its tube, which is nearly closed ‘by a white, 2-ridged projection or palate; the upper lip erect, 2-lobed; lower lip 3-lobed, spreading. Stamens 4, in pairs, in throat; 1 pistil. Stem: Slender, weak, of sterile shoots, prostrate; flowering stem, ascending or erect, 4 in. to 2 ft. high. Leaves: Small, linear, alternately scattered along stem, or oblong in pairs or threes on leafy sterile shoots.

Preferred Habitat—Dry soil, gravel or sand.

Flowering Season—May—October.

Distribution—North, Central, and South Americas.

Wolf, rat, mouse, sow, cow, cat, snake, dragon, dog, toad, are among the many animal prefixes to the names of flowers that the English country people have given for various and often most interesting reasons. Just as dog, used as a prefix, expresses an idea of worthlessness to them, so toad suggests a spurious plant; the toadflax being made to bear what is meant to be an odious name because be-fore flowering it resembles the true flax, linum, from which the generic title is derived.

Hairy Beard-tongue

Pentstemon hirsutus (P. pubescens)

Flowers—Dull violet or lilac and white, about I in. long, borne in a loose spike. Calyx 5-parted, the sharply pointed sepals overlapping; corolla, a gradually inflated tube widening where the mouth divides into a 2-lobed upper lip and a 3-lobed lower lip; the throat nearly closed by hairy palate at base of lower lip; sterile fifth stamen densely bearded for half its length;4 anther-bearing stamens, the anthers divergent. Stem: 1 to 3 ft. high, erect, downy above. Leaves: Oblong to lance-shaped, upper ones seated on stem; lower ones narrowed into petioles.

Preferred Habitat—Dry or rocky fields, thickets, and open woods.

Flowering Season—May–July.

Distribution—Ontario to Florida, Manitoba to Texas.

It is the densely bearded, yellow, fifth stamen (pente = five , stemon =a stamen) ‘which gives this flower its scientific name and its chief interest to the structural botanist. From the fact that a blossom has a lip in the centre of the lower half of its corolla, that an insect must use as its landing place, comes the necessity for the pistil to occupy a central position. Naturally, a fifth stamen would be only in its way, an encumbrance to be banished in time. In the figwort, for example, we have seen the fifth stamen reduced, from long sterility, to a mere scale on the roof of the corolla tube; in other lipped flowers, the useless organ has disappeared; but in the beard-tongue, it goes through a series of curious curves from the upper to the under side of the flower to get out of the way of the pistil. Yet it serves an admirable purpose in helping close the mouth of the flower, which the hairy lip alone could not adequately guard against pilferers. A long-tongued bee, thrusting in his head up to his eyes only, receives the pollen in his face. The blossom is male (staminate) in its first stage and female (pistillate) in its second. A western species of the beard-tongue has been selected by gardeners for hybridizing into showy but often less charming flowers.

Snake-head; Turtle-head; Balmony; Shellflower;


Chelone glabra

Flowers—White tinged with pink, or all white, about 1 in. long, growing in a dense, terminal cluster. Calyx 5-parted, bracted at base; corolla irregular broadly tubular, 2-lipped; upper lip arched, swollen, slightly notched; lower lip 3-lobed, spreading, woolly within; 5 stamens, 1 sterile, 4 in pairs, anther-bearing, woolly; 1 pistil. Stem: 1 to 3 ft. high, erect, smooth, simple, leafy. Leaves: Opposite, lance-shaped, saw-edged.

Preferred Habitat—Ditches, beside streams, swamps. Flowering Season—July—September. Distribution—Newfoundland to Florida, and half way across the continent.

It requires something of a struggle for even so strong and vigorous an insect as the bumblebee to gain admission to this inhospitable-looking flower before maturity; and even he abandons the attempt over and over again in its earliest stage before the little heart-shaped anthers are prepared to dust him over. As they mature, it opens slightly, but his weight alone is insufficient to bend down the stiff, yet elastic, lower lip. Energetic prying admits first his head, then he squeezes his body through, brushing past the stamens as he finally disappears inside. At the moment when he is forcing his way in, causing the lower lip to spring up and down, the eyeless turtle seems to chew and chew until the most sedate beholder must smile at the paradoxical show. Of course it is the bee that is feeding, though the flower would seem to be masticating the bee with the keenest relish! The counterfeit tortoise soon disgorges its lively mouthful, however, and away flies the bee, carrying pollen on his velvety back to rub on the stigma of an older flower.

Monkey-flower Mimulus ringens

Flowers—Purple, violet, or lilac, rarely whitish; about 1 in. long, solitary, borne on slender footstems from axils of upper leaves. Calyx prismatic, 5-angled, 5-toothed; corolla irregular, tubular, narrow in throat, 2-lipped; upper lip 2-lobed, erect; under lip 3-lobed, spreading; 4 stamens, a long and a short pair, inserted on corolla tube; 1 pistil with 2-lobed, plate-like stigma. Stem: Square, erect, usually branched, 1 to 3 ft. high. Leaves: Opposite, oblong to lance-shaped, saw-edged, mostly seated on stem.

Preferred Habitat—Swamps, beside streams and ponds. Flowering Season—June—September. Distribution—Manitoba, Nebraska, and Texas, eastward to Atlantic Ocean.

Imaginative eyes see what appears to them the gaping (ringens) face of a little ape or buffoon (mimulus) in this common flower whose drolleries, such as they are, call forth the only applause desired—the buzz of insects that become pollen-laden during the entertainment.

Common Speedwell; Fluellin; Paul’s Betony; Groundhele

Veronica officinalis

Flowers—Pale blue, very small, crowded on spike-like racemes from axils of leaves, often from alternate axils. Calyx 4-parted; corolla of 4 lobes, lower lobe commonly narrowest; 2 divergent stamens inserted at base and on either side of upper corolla lobe; a knob-like stigma on solitary pistil. Stem: From 3 to 10 in. long, hairy, often prostrate, and rooting at joints. Leaves: Opposite, oblong, obtuse, saw-edged, narrowed at base. Fruit: Compressed heart-shaped capsule, containing numerous flat seeds.

Preferred Habitat—Dry fields, uplands, open woods. Flowering Season—May—August.

Distribution—From Michigan and Tennessee eastward, also from Ontario to Nova Scotia. Probably an immigrant from Europe and Asia.

An ancient tradition of the Roman Church relates that when Jesus was on His way to Calvary, He passed the home of a certain Jewish maiden, who, when she saw drops of agony on His brow, ran after Him along the road to wipe His face with her kerchief. This linen, the monks declared, ever after bore the impress of the sacred features —vera iconica, the true likeness. When the Church wished to canonize the pitying maiden, an abbreviated form of the Latin words was given her, St. Veronica, and her kerchief became one of the most precious relics at St. Peter’s, where it is said to be still preserved. Medieval flower lovers, whose piety seems to have been eclipsed only by their imaginations, named this little flower from a fancied resemblance to the relic. Of course, special healing virtue was attributed to the square of pictured linen, and since all could not go to Rome to be cured by it, naturally the next step was to employ the common, wayside plant that bore the saint’s name. Mental healers will not be surprised to learn that because of the strong popular belief in its efficacy to cure all fleshly ills, it actually seemed to possess miraculous powers. For scrofula it was said to be the infallible remedy, and presently we find Linnaeus grouping this flower, and all its relatives, under the family name of Scrofulariaceae.

American Brooklime

Veronica americans

Flowers—Light blue to white, usually striped with deep blue or purple; structure of flower similar to that of V. officinalis, but borne in long, loose racemes branching outward on stems that spring from axils of most of the leaves. Stem: Without hairs, usually branched, 6 in. to 3 ft. long, lying partly on ground and rooting from lower joints. Leaves: Oblong, lance-shaped, saw-edged, opposite, petioled, and lacking hairs; 1 to 3 in. long, 1/4 to 1 in. wide. Fruit: A nearly round, compressed, but not flat, capsule with flat seeds in 2 cells.

Preferred Habitat—In brooks, ponds, ditches, swamps. Flowering Season—April—September.

Distribution—From Atlantic to Pacific, Alaska to California and New Mexico, Quebec to Pennsylvania. This, the perhaps most beautiful native speedwell, whose sheets of blue along the brookside are so frequently mistaken for masses of forget-me-nots by the hasty observer, of course shows marked differences on closer investigation; its tiny blue flowers are marked with purple pathfinders, and the plant is not hairy, to mention only two. But the poets of England are responsible for most of whatever con-fusion still lurks in the popular mind concerning these two flowers. Speedwell, a common medieval benediction from a friend, equivalent to our farewell or adieu, and forget-me-not of similar intent, have been used inter-changeably by some writers in connection with parting gifts of small blue flowers. It was the germander speed-well that in literature and botanies alike was most commonly known as the forget-me-not for more than two hundred years, or until only fifty years ago. When the Mayflower and her sister ships were launched, “Speed-well” was considered a happier name for a vessel than it proved to be.

Culver’s-root; Culver’s Physic

Veronica virginica (Leptandra virginica)

Flowers—Small, white or rarely bluish, crowded in dense spike-like racemes 3 to 9 in. long, usually several spikes at top of stem or from upper axils. Calyx 4-parted, very small; corolla tubular, 4-lobed; 2 stamens protruding; 1 pistil. Stem: Straight, erect, usually unbranched, 2 to 7 ft. tall. Leaves: Whorled, from 3 to 9 in a cluster, lance-shaped or oblong, and long-tapering, sharply saw-edged.

Preferred Habitat—Rich, moist woods, thickets, meadows.

Flowering Season—June—September.

Distribution—Nova Scotia to Alabama, west to Nebraska.

“The leaves of the herbage at our feet,” says Ruskin, “take all kinds of strange shapes, as if to invite us to examine them. Star-shaped, heart-shaped, spear-shaped, arrow-shaped, fretted, fringed, cleft, furrowed, serrated, in whorls, in tufts, in wreaths, in spires, endlessly expressive, deceptive, fantastic, never the same from footstalks to blossom, they seem perpetually to tempt our watch-fulness, and take delight in outstripping our wonder.” Doubtless light is the factor with the greatest effect in determining the position of the leaves on the stem, if not their shape. After plenty of light has been secured, any aid they may render the flowers in increasing their attractiveness is gladly rendered. Who shall deny that the brilliant foliage of the sumacs, the dogwood, and the pokeweed in autumn does not greatly help them in attracting the attention of migrating birds to their fruit, whose seeds they wish distributed? Or that the clustered leaves of the Dwarf Cornel and Culver’s-root, among others, do not set off to great advantage their white flowers which, when seen by an insect flying overhead, are made doubly conspicuous by the leafy background formed by the whorl?

Downy False Foxglove

Gerardia flava (Dasystoma flava)

Flowers—Pale yellow, 1 to 2 in. long; in showy, terminal, leafy bracted racemes. Calyx bell-shaped, 5-toothed; corolla funnel form, the 5 lobes spreading, smooth outside, woolly within; 4 stamens in pairs, woolly; 1 pistil. Stem: Grayish, downy, erect, usually simple, 2 to 4 ft. tall. Leaves: Opposite, lower ones oblong in outline, more or less irregularly lobed and toothed; upper ones small, entire.

Preferred Habitat—Gravelly or sandy soil, dry thickets, open woods.

Flowering Season—July—August.

Distribution—” Eastern Massachusetts to Ontario and Wisconsin, south to southern New York, Georgia, and Mississippi” (Britton and Brown).

In the vegetable kingdom, as in the spiritual, all degree of backsliding sinners may be found, each branded with a mark of infamy according to its deserts. We see how the dodder vine lost both leaf and roots after it consented to live wholly by theft of its hard-working host’s juices through suckers that penetrate to the vitals; how the Indian Pipe’s blanched face tells the story of guilt perpetrated under cover of darkness in the soil below; how the broom-rape and beech-drops lost their honest green color; and, finally, the foxgloves show us plants with their faces so newly turned toward the path of perdition, their larceny so petty, that only the expert in criminal botany cases condemns them. Like its cousins the gerardias, the Downy False Foxglove is only a partial parasite, attaching its roots by disks or suckers to the roots of white oak or witch hazel; not only that, but, quite as frequently, groping blindly in the dark, it fastens suckers on its own roots, actually thieving from itself ! It is this piratical tendency which makes transplanting of foxgloves into our gardens so very difficult, even when lifted with plenty of their beloved vegetable mould. The term false foxglove, it should be explained, is by no means one of reproach for dishonesty; it was applied simply to distinguish this group of plants from the true foxgloves cultivated, not wild, here, which yield digitalis to the doctors.

Large Purple Gerardia

Gerardia purpurea

Flowers—Bright purplish pink, deep magenta, or pale to whitish, about 1 in. long and broad, growing along the rigid, spreading branches. Calyx 5-toothed; corolla funnel form, the tube much inflated above and spreading into 5 unequal, rounded lobes, spotted within, or sometimes downy; 4 stamens in pairs, the filaments hairy; 1 pistil. Stem: 1 to 2 1/2 ft. high, slender, branches erect or spreading. Leaves: Opposite, very narrow, 1 to 1 1/2 in. long.

Preferred Habitat—Low fields and meadows; moist, sandy soil.

Flowering Season—August—October. Distribution—Northern United States to Florida, chiefly along Atlantic Coast.

It is a special pity to gather the gerardias, which, as they grow, seem to enjoy life to the full, and when picked, to be so miserable they turn black as they dry. Like their relatives the foxgloves, they are difficult to transplant except with a large ball of soil, because it is said they are more or less parasitic, fastening their roots on those of other plants. When robbery becomes flagrant, Nature brands sinners in the vegetable kingdom by taking away their color, and perhaps their leaves, as in the case of the broom-rape and Indian Pipe; but the fair faces of the gerardias and foxgloves give no hint of the petty thefts committed under cover of darkness in the soil below.

Scarlet Painted Cup; Indian Paint-brush

Castilleja coccinea

Flowers—Greenish yellow, enclosed by broad, vermilion, 3-cleft floral bracts; borne in a terminal spike. Calyx flattened, tubular, cleft above and below into 2 lobes; usually green, sometimes scarlet; corolla very irregular, the upper lip long and arched, the short lower lip 3-lobed; 4 unequal stamens; 1 pistil. Stem: 1 to 2 ft. high, usually unbranched, hairy. Leaves: Lower ones tufted, oblong, mostly uncut; stem leaves deeply cleft into 3 to 5 segments, sessile.

Preferred Habitat—Meadows, prairies, mountains, moist, sandy soil.

Flowering Season—May—July.

Distribution—Maine to Manitoba, south to Virginia, Kansas, and Texas.

Here and there the meadows show a touch of as vivid a red as that in which Vibert delighted to dip his brush.

“Scarlet tufts

Are glowing in the green like flakes of fire; The wanderers of the prairie know them well, And call that brilliant flower the painted cup.”‘

Thoreau, who objected to this name, thought flame flower a better one, the name the Indians gave to Oswego Tea; but here the floral bracts, not the flowers themselves, are on fire. Whole mountainsides in the Canadian Rockies are ablaze with the Indian Paint-brushes that range in color there from ivory white and pale salmon through every shade of red to deep maroon—a gorgeous conflagration of color. Lacking good, honest, deep green, one suspects from the yellowish tone of calices, stem, and leaves that this plant is something of a thief. That it still possesses foliage, proves only petty larceny against it, similar to the foxglove’s. The roots of our painted cup occasionally break in and steal from the roots of its neighbors such juices as the plant must work over into vegetable tissue. Therefore it still needs leaves, indispensable parts of a digestive apparatus. Were it wholly given up to piracy, like the dodder, or as parasitic as the Indian Pipe, even the green and the leaf that it hath would be taken away.

Wood Betony; Lousewort; Beefsteak Plant; High Heal-all Pedicularis canadensis

Flowers—Greenish yellow and purplish red, in a short, dense spike. Calyx oblique, tubular, cleft on lower side, and with 2 or 3 scallops on upper; corolla about 3/4 in. long, 2-lipped, the upper lip arched, concave, the lower 3-lobed; 4 stamens in pairs; 1 pistil. Stems: Clustered, simple, hairy, 6 to 18 in. high. Leaves: Mostly tufted, oblong lance-shaped in outline, and pinnately lobed.

Preferred Habitat—Dry, open woods and thickets. Flowering Season—April—June.

Distribution—Nova Scotia to Florida, westward to Manitoba, Colorado, and Kansas

When the Italians wish to extol some one they say, “He has more virtues than betony,” alluding, of course, to the European species, Betonica officinalis, a plant that was worn about the neck and cultivated in cemeteries during the Middle Ages as a charm against evil spirits; and pre-pared into plasters, ointments, syrups, and oils, was sup-posed to cure every ill that flesh is heir to. Our commonest American species fulfils its mission in beautifying road-side banks, and dry open woods and copses with thick, short spikes of bright flowers, that rise above large rosettes of coarse, hairy, fern-like foliage. At first, these flowers, beloved of bumblebees, are all greenish yellow; but as the spike lengthens with increased bloom, the arched, upper lip of the blossom becomes dark purplish red, the lower one remains pale yellow, and the throat turns reddish, while some of the beefsteak color often creeps into stems and leaves as well.

Farmers once believed that after their sheep fed on the foliage of this group of plants a skin disease, produced by a certain tiny louse (pediculus), would attack them—hence our innocent betony’s repellent name.