bee forage

Figworts and their sweet surprise: a treasure trove of nectar

According to the Xerces Society, figworts are some of the most prolific nectar producers in the plant kingdom, attracting many pollinators.

Inside: Figwort plants grow tall with inconspicuous goblet-shaped flowers, but they overflow with nectar, one of the most nectar-rich plants on earth.

The buzz at my window

I awaken on summer mornings to the sound of bumble bees. Bizz. Stop. Bizz. Stop. Bizzzzzz. Stop. The morning cuppa they seek is found in the figwort blossoms below my open window.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 159 No 11, November 2019, pp. 1235-1128.

The figworts, genus Scrophularia, belong to the family Scrophulariaceae. I love that name. I love it because it sounds like a whole sentence without having to worry about nouns and verbs and such. Just muttering skroff-you-lair-ee-AY-see-ee makes you sound seriously intellectual. Go ahead and try it at your next dinner party.

Until recently, we knew the Scrophulariaceae as the snapdragon family. But because of modern taxonomic methods, the snapdragons moved out of the snapdragon family, which seems a bit odd. At any rate, since the figworts are one of the few genera left in the so-called snapdragon family, it is now known as the figwort family.

Bumble bees are fond of figworts and are the source of the buzzing I hear in the early morning hours. All photos © Rusty Burlew.

A humble plant can yield lots of honey

According to the Xerces Society book, 100 Plants to Feed the Bees, “Figworts are amongst the most prolific nectar producers in the plant world.” That’s a bold statement for a plant we don’t see very often. But back in the 1800s, many beekeepers planted figwort specifically for a honey crop, and the plants rewarded them handsomely. Xerces adds, “Beekeepers claimed a single acre could produce 400 to 800 pounds of honey, prized for being light, clear, and aroma-free.”

Back in the day, figwort was known as Simpson’s honey plant. The name Simpson became attached to the plant after a beekeeper, James A. Simpson, wrote a letter to A.I. Root describing his experience with a marvelous honey-producing plant. The description was subsequently published in “The ABC of Bee Culture,” a Root publication. A passage from the 1888 edition praised the plant lavishly:

“This is a queer tall weed that grows in fields and woods, and it bears little cups full of honey. It has produced so much honey under cultivation on our honey farm during the past two years that I am much inclined to place it at the head of the list of honey plants.”

This small sweat bee in the genus Halictus is collecting pollen from figwort. Figworts are not known for being pollen-heavy, but the smaller bees seem happy with it.

Little cups filled to the brim with nectar

It’s those little cups that fascinate me. When I see a bee embracing the rounded petals with two or more legs, drinking deeply, I’m reminded of the chalices of Arthurian legend. I imagine something hammered from gold that requires two hands to lift. It is filled with wine or perhaps mead and passed from one person to another in high ceremony. For a more down-scale comparison, think of the flowers as sippy cups for bees.

All the larger insects I have seen slurping from the flowers embrace the blossoms with at least their two forefeet and sometimes the mid ones, as well. This includes the honey bees, bumble bees, larger wasps, and butterflies. The smaller bees, unable to span the distance, tend to just climb in.

On a sunny day, you can see the nectar in the cups. And when the light is just right, you can see sticky drops oozing from the upper stems, small droplets dazzling in the sunshine. People who have walked through large stands of figwort say they emerge with sticky clothes and tacky skin — thanks to all the sap.

This small hover fly in the family Syrphidae is taking a rest after tanking up on figwort nectar. The flies in this huge and widespread family are excellent pollinators of many plant species.

A plant rooted in history

The plants in the genus Scrophularia are erect perennials with square stems. Although the figworts can easily be grown from seed, once a plant becomes established, it arises each spring from thickened underground roots.

Some species, especially S. nodosa, have swollen-looking areas on the roots that Roman herbalists compared to the shape of figs. Since those herbalists were an imaginative lot, they also believed that figs resembled hemorrhoids. Calling upon the Doctrine of Signatures — which claims a plant can treat the thing it resembles — figwort was used to treat hemorrhoids.

Not only does the common name “figwort” come from the appearance of the swollen roots, but the scientific name “Scrophularia” came from the word “scrophulus,” which refers to swellings of the type related to tuberculosis. Today, scrophulous means morally corrupt or degenerate. When you think about it, it’s all kind of gross.

Many types of mason bees visit the figwort, including this raspberry bee, Osmia aglaia. In the background, you can see thick sap exuding near the tops of the stems. If you walk through a stand of figwort, this sap can quickly make you sticky.

Figwort is a shade-tolerant bee plant

The leaves of the plant are opposite, with short stalks and saw-toothed edges. They vary in shape from arrow- to lance-shaped and are coated with fine hairs.

 The plants grow well in areas that receive partial shade, yet they will also grow in full sun. They are equally tolerant of a variety of soil types and moisture levels. Although they seem to prefer open woodland, some species live in marshy areas and others in deserts.

Some individual plants may reach eight feet in height, although four to five feet seems to be about average. They are great for gardeners because they are not invasive, and their acrid foliage makes them both deer and rabbit-resistant.

An oval-headed sweat bee, Lasioglossum ovaliceps, hangs from the lower lip of a square-mouthed flower.

The multicolored, cup-like flowers attract insects

The flowers of figwort are anything but showy. You can barely see them until you are up close and personal. But from that vantage point, the blossoms are unique and beautiful, ranging from yellow to green, purple, brown, maroon, and even bright red. The flowers have two lips. The upper one is quite long and overhangs the flower opening like a shed roof, sheltering the stamens and the nectar from rain. Inside, the light-colored stamens look like a large tongue inside an open mouth.

They secrete nectar in two large drops at the base of the ovary. After insects remove them, the drops reappear moments later. Some articles refer to the flowers as “malodorous” but I’ve never noticed that feature myself, and certainly the pollinators don’t seem to mind either.

The seed capsules are roundish and filled with tiny black seeds that number about 170,000 per ounce. Once the capsules dry, you can cut off the flower stalks and simply shake the seeds into a container. Plant them in the fall or early spring.

With their plentiful nectar and high sugar content, figworts are popular with both beekeepers and honey bees.

The clientele that visit sticky figworts

A large cross-section of pollinators partakes in figwort nectar. In my small patch, I have seen bees, wasps, butterflies, beetles, flower flies, and even hummingbirds. Some people avoid figwort because of its attractiveness to wasps, but many gardeners like the idea of a robust wasp population because of their predilection for aphids. Some older articles even refer to figwort as the “wasp flower.”

Although thirsty wasps generally move quickly between flowers, they tend to stay longer at the figwort blossoms. I love the way this paper wasp, Polistes dominula, seems to be tipping up the chalice.

A Figwort for Every Region

For those of you who like to plant for bees, figwort is a perfect choice. We have several species in North America, so there’s a good chance you’ll find one that will thrive in your area. Some of the most popular species feature in seed catalogs that specialize in native or bee-friendly plants.

Common Figwort: S. nodosa is called common figwort, woodland figwort, or sometimes knotted figwort. Common figwort prefers rich forest soils from SE Canada and New England west to Oklahoma and south to Georgia. It typically blooms in July and August. According to https://www.britannica.com, this particular species is originally from Great Britain but has naturalized in the eastern United States.

Lance-leaved Figwort: Lance-leaved figwort, S. lanceolata, is also called early figwort. The flowers are lighter than some of the other species with yellow and greenish-yellow petals tinged with red highlights. It occurs across the northern parts of North America, especially in the northeastern states, and thrives in recently burned areas. It flowers from May through July.

Carpenter’s Square: S. marilandica was sold as Simpson’s honey plant. It is also called carpenter’s square, Maryland figwort, heal-all, and square-stalk. The sugar content of the nectar is high, ranging from 18% to 35%. It grows throughout the eastern states except for the coastal south and blooms from June through September.

California Bee Plant: Found along the west coast from British Columbia to the Mexican border, S. californica has dull maroon to brown flowers that bloom from March through July, depending on location.

If you live in southern California, several additional figworts are endemic to that area, including the black-flowered figwort (S. atrata), desert figwort (S. desertorum), and Santa Catalina figwort (S. villosa). In addition, the mountainous regions of Arizona and New Mexico are home to an unusual species, S. macrantha, sometimes called the red-birds-in-a-tree plant.

A variety of different wasps visit the figwort, such as this Dolichovespula maculata. It’s easy to forget how closely related bees and wasps really are until you watch them among the flowers.

My very own figwort lives on

The figwort growing beneath my window started as a volunteer in a friend’s garden. After listening to me coo over all the pollinators in her figwort — which I had never seen before — she dug up a little sprig and gave it to me. After I got home, I forgot to plant it for a few days, but when I finally got around to it, I decided on the spot under my window. It seemed dead, but after a few days, it perked up and even flowered that first year. Although I don’t know which species I have, I’m continually entertained by all its myriad visitors.

So if you are a beekeeper — or even if you’re not — give figwort a try. Even though I have but one plant, it has kept me entertained for three years. If you can’t find seeds, you may be able to find a plant in the wild. Most of the species live at low elevations on streambanks or in damp clearings. Dig into the soil to find the thickened root and transplant it into average soil with up to 70% shade. Water occasionally and your pollinator bar will be open for business in no time.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

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About Me

I backed my love of bee science with a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I write extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. I’ve endured multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist and other organizations. My master beekeeper certificate issued from U Montana. I’m also an English nerd. More here.

19 Comments

  • Got some S. marylandica seeds from Territorial Seed a couple years ago and now have several plants. One caution for those in our area; it looks a lot like stinging nettle when the plants are younger so don’t weed-whack it in error. It’s so similar-looking; with toothed leaf margins and square stems like stinging nettle, but the leaves of S. marylandica have a single central vein, whereas stinging nettle has branched leaf veins.

  • As always thank you. We continually look for additional options for plants on the farm and out back on some of the vacant power line areas. Did some very preliminary looking for seeds. Appears to be somewhat limited but haven’t checked with our local nurseries yet. If I read correctly the underlying narratives suggest winter seeding and that it takes 2-3 years for first flowering? Is that consistent with your experience? Helps me figure out next steps.

      • Rusty, now in its second year of growing, not only is it a prolific re-seeder it has sprouted via root systems and has all but taken over a stretch of flower bed 40 feet long and 10 feet wide in an area that is NEVER watered. I am going to be pulling some of it come fall and giving it away to the neighbors. Interesting observation- last year’s flowering the honey bees were all over it sharing with the bumble bees along with a smattering of what I hope is just a hoverfly. This year, the honey bees seem to be giving it an exceptionally wide berth and it is a bonus to the bumble bees and what I hope are hoverflies similar in size relative to the flower as in your photo. There are masses of them and they only a touch larger than the honey bees. Guess we’ll find out come August if I have created a JY nightmare.

        • Gary,

          That’s so interesting. I’ve had mine for six or seven years and it has never self-seeded nor has it spread via roots. I wish it would!

  • Psssst. In Michigan, figwort is a native species and covered by law. While not likely one will get a fine or ticket from the figwort police, it is a disruption to the ever-disappearing native plant communities. Better to find a native plant nursery, and there are some good ones here, plunk down your 4 or 5 bucks and get your plants this way. That said, I have early and late figworts in my garden. They are not showy, but they sure are attractive to insects.

  • Totally off-topic*:
    I was just told your website had an expired certificate of some kind, and was therefore probably an imposter site and I shouldn’t go here. I had to fight with my computer to get here. My sympathy and good luck with all your website mysteries.

    *(although, hey, this is totally not what I would have imagined something called ‘figwort’ would look like, and I’m happy to have a name for them, although I’ll probably now be applying the name indiscriminately)

    • Hi Roberta,

      Supposedly, the certificate is being renewed. Who knows how long that will take or why no one said it was expiring. All the messages online are really scary, though. They even scare me.

    • Nancy,

      Well, the thanks go to you for my very first figwort. I just love watching the array of visitors. I too have seen hummingbirds at them, but I was never able to get a photo. Great videos—so many bees!

  • One website I looked at said:
    Common Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa) is poisonous and contains the following toxic substances:
    PhenylEthanoid Glycosides:
    Obviously the insects you saw enjoying the nectar are unaware of this!

    • I couldn’t find a website that said which part of the figwort was allegedly poisonous, although I found plenty of websites telling which parts to use for herbal medicines. Probably the dosage makes the poison. Also, probably, no toxin in the nectar since flowers evolved to encourage insects to visit.

      I know for a fact that the evil toxic poison ivy makes delicious honey.

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