bee forage

Figwort: a nectar-rich bee favorite

I often get helplessly enthralled with things that are new to me. My current obsession is figwort. Ever since I was introduced to this curious bee plant back in June, I’ve been fixated on it. Right now, I’d love to plant my entire property in figwort.

It all started when I was invited by Nancy Partlow of OlyPollinators to visit her pollinator garden. She has a stunning and extensive garden of flowers, all selected with the goal of attracting as many pollinators as possible. One plant in particular was loaded with bees, bending over with them in fact, and Nancy said it was figwort. Well, this was news to me.

Tiny blossoms yield large rewards

From my botany days, I knew the Scrophulariaceae family was also known as the figwort family, but beyond that my memory is sketchy. In any case, I don’t remember seeing these plants. Easy to overlook, the flowers are small and unimpressive from a distance. But close up they’re unusual, square, and plum purple.

It turns out that there are two major species of figwort in the United States. Late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) spans the eastern states and blooms from July through October. Early figwort (Scrophularia lanceolata) stretches over most of the continent, except the deep south, and blooms from May through July. A third species (S. californica) is found in California and is commonly known as the California bee plant.

Also known as Simpson’s honey plant

According to the Xerces Society, “Figworts are amongst the most prolific nectar producers in the plant world.” Back in the 1880s, late figwort was known as Simpson’s honey plant and was often planted by beekeepers specifically for honey production. The Xerces Society adds, “Beekeepers claimed a single acre could produce 400 to 800 pounds of honey that was prized for being light, clear, and aroma-free.”

But the figworts attract not only only honey bees but a wide variety of pollinators including native bees, flies, solitary wasps, hummingbirds, and butterflies. These perennial plants like the sun but will tolerate up to 70% shade, and they will thrive even in soggy soils.

At the time I visited Nancy’s garden, she gave me a start of figwort that had volunteered out of bounds. On returning home, I planted the little wisp in the pollinator garden behind the house and doubted it would amount to anything.

Springing to life in my garden

After limping along for two weeks or more, it began to show signs of life. It sprouted some nice green leaves, loads of tiny urn-like flowers, and my honey bees have been entranced ever since. I read somewhere that the early and late species are hard to tell apart but their blooming times do not overlap.

So at this point, I don’t have a clue which one I have. The little start was blooming when I got it back in June (which would indicate early) but it’s still blooming (which would indicate late). But whatever it is, my bees and I love it.

Many alternative names exist for these plants. Oddest perhaps is “carpenter’s square.” I can only guess where the name comes from, but looking at the flowers head-on, the opening is definitely square. An odd name for an odd flower.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

If you are interested in these plants, late figwort seeds can be purchased on Amazon.

Honey bee on figwort flower.

This honey bee is nectaring on a figwort blossom. © Rusty Burlew.

Bumble bee on figwort flower.

Bumble bees also enjoy the figwort nectar. © Rusty Burlew.

Note: This post contains an affiliate link.


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33 Comments

  • Not the prettiest plant out there, but a work horse for the pollinators. I remain, native plants are hands down, the best plants for native insects. For most, the only plants. The entire food chain is built upon their backs. (a couple of milkweed too?)

  • some more info about figwort:

    mid 16th century: from obsolete fig ‘piles’ + wort. The word originally denoted the pilewort, or lesser celandine, which was used as a treatment for piles; the current sense dates from the late 16th century.

  • I planted some of this TOO!! I saw it in “100 plants to feed the bees” and promptly ordered a large packet. Mine is from seed and the groundhogs and deer have decimated my wildflower plantings. I am trying again next year. So glad you posted about this.

  • Hi-
    Lots of talk about screens to stop robber bees. I have a quick and easy solution which I actually used yesterday to thwart a robber attack! I bought two pieces of plywood eight foot by four foot and cut each into 2 foot by 4 foot lengths. I simply lean a piece of the plywood at a distance that stops it from falling over (45 degrees works well). On my Langstroth one piece is enough but on my top-bar hives I use two pieces. This stops the robber bees right away and the bees that live there find their way easily. It’s way easier than anything else I’ve even seen and it works. This is 3rd year and actually now I just leave them up all year long. I didn’t have the plywood on this hive as it was a “bait hive” and is now occupied but a very strong swarm that only moved in in late May. This works well and is far easier than screens, etc. I have had zero issues with overheating nor any other problems at all. Peter

    • Peter,

      Reading this, I don’t understand where you are putting the plywood. Could you explain or send a photo?

  • Rusty
    Let me know if you find a seed source, I would like to plant some and see if it grows in my neck of the meadows.

    thanks
    BeeHappy

  • Hi Rusty

    This is the notice I get when I follow the link you set to Amazon…just FYI

    Your search “Everwilde Farms Figwort Native Wildflower” did not match any products

    Looking for a Canadian source for these seeds….not available thru Vesey’s

    Bill

    • Bill,

      Sorry about that. My Amazon.ca account is attached to my US account, and if one doesn’t have something you get that irritating message.

  • Hi,

    Another interesting plant is the loquat that flowers in November when we (Portugal) have little food and the bees love it.

    And the fruit is great.

    • Brad,

      I don’t know about other places, but these figworts are native to North America and are not considered invasive or aggressive.

    • My experience with figwort is that it essentially stays put, but like any other native plant it will plant itself if the conditions are right. This is OK with me as I do not consider native plants weeds and think Mother Nature does a far better job of creating her landscape than I do.

  • I just love to read what u write about the bees and the flowers to help them. I just bought some late and early figwort seeds from a company called prairie moon nursery hope my bees love the stuff like u say they do. Thanks and have a great day.

  • I planted (in Ohio) late figwort from seed from prairie moon nursery for my husband’s new bees. They are on these continuously! Next year I’ll try to grow early figwort as well.

  • After reading this website, I grew several plants from seed. They have now flowered, but, strangely, I have not seen any bees on them yet.

    • Utes,

      What else is in flower nearby? Something very attractive may be drawing the bees away from your figwort.

  • That’s a good point. I have mountain mint growing nearby and that is overflowing with bees 🙂

  • If it helps, from my reading the stamen inside early figwort is yellow and the late figwort is reddish or purplish. The one photo you showed the stamen appeared to be yellowish. In terms of seeding, they can seed everywhere. My bed I don’t care, but a small bed might have problems. However, I have easily dug them up and moved them. The only note is that the seeds travel around a bit because of birds (I have them in different areas of my property because of it.)

  • I’ll see the occasional honey bee on my early figworts, but the insects that are on it constantly are the bald-faced hornets. Oddly, I rarely see bumblebees on it, while they are all over the nearby bee balm and catmint. But the mountain mint in my front yard is covered with honey bees, great golden digger wasps, bumblebees, and other native bees large and small that I can’t identify.

    • Cal,

      Well, they don’t call figwort “wasp plant” for nothing! But besides wasps, mine also attract a fair number of honey bees and bumble bees. Your nearby bee balm and catmint are probably diverting many bees away from the figwort: there will always be a favorite. As for mountain mint, it’s a perfect bee plant, although I can never get it to grow.

      • Delighted to hear that I am not the only person who is capable of killing off mint. ANY mint, and yes, most recently, a patch of mountain mint that struggled along for a couple of years and then disintegrated. I have more hope for a recently acquired bit of spearmint that is eagerly trying to colonize the standing water that surrounds it.

        As to the title plant, figwort, I think you’ve written glowing recommendations about it before. With these pictures, I think it is possible that the unidentified bush in my front garden might be in the family. It doesn’t actually flower every year, and lasts less than a week, but the flowers are just like this. When it’s blooming, the bush hums loudly all day from the bumblebees and/or carpenter bees. No honey bees though.

        • I think it has to do with me really, really wanting it to grow. A few of my regular readers have even sent me seed from their prolific plants, but no luck. I have other mints that come back year after year, plants that would happily take over the whole yard. But mountain mint attracts so many pollinators, I’m kinda fixated on it. And that works against me.

          • Hmmm…I found it fairly easy to germinate and grow to transplant size. Did you stratify the seeds? I put the seeds mixed with damp sand in a baggie in the refrigerator in late winter. When I saw a few begin to germinate, I put sprinkled the seed/sand mixture on some moist peat-based seed starting medium in a multiple plug flat and sifted more sand lightly over them. Misted to settle the surface and kept it outside on a covered porch. Made sure it didn’t dry out by misting occasionally. Got many more seedlings to transplant than I needed. Probably could have dispensed with the refrigerator stratification if I’d planted on the flat in early winter and kept it outdoors all winter. I’ve done that with others that need a winter stratification with good results. Got my seeds from Everwilde but that probably was immaterial.

            • Dear Cal,

              As you already know, I have a degree in agronomic crops and have mastered extensive courses in plant propagation. This is why I can’t grow anything. Everything I touch dies. There is something about education that is usually good, but it can go drastically wrong. If I succeed with some green plant, it’s because it survived in spite of me, not because of me.

              Yes, I stratified. I can even explain the chemical and biological processes that take place during stratification. But make it happen? No way. I will just continue to be jealous of people like you have the touch.

  • Oh, well then. I think I may know what the sources of your extensive training neglected to divulge; the secret of the so-called “green thumb”. As one who has apparently acquired it, I’ll key you in: just say to the seeds/plants/cuttings, “I couldn’t care less if you live or die.” Then, do the minimal essential care and otherwise ignore them, other than occasionally checking and muttering, “Maybe I’ll give these another week or two before I put them in the trash.” Sound like you mean it. Works the vast majority of the time. Now, try those mountain mint seeds again!