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.
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, the family Scrophulariaceae was known as the snapdragon family. But due to modern taxonomic methods, the snapdragons were 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.
A Honey of a Plant
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 they were rewarded 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 usually referred to 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.”
Little cups filled to the brim
It’s those little cups that so fascinate me. When I see a bee embracing the rounded petals with two or more feet, 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.
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 be used to 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” was derived from the word “scrophulus,” which referred 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.
Shade Tolerant Nectar Plants
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 are found 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.
The flowers of figwort are anything but showy. In fact, 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 stamens are light-colored and look like a large tongue inside an open mouth.
Nectar is secreted in two large drops at the base of the ovary. After they are removed by insects, the drops reappear in just moments. 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. They can be planted in fall or early spring.
A large cross-section of pollinators partake of figwort nectar. In my own 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 due to their predilection for aphids. Some older articles even refer to figwort as “wasp flower.”
A Figwort for Every Region
For those of you who like to plant for bees, figwort is a perfect choice. A number of species are found in North America, so there’s a good chance you’ll find a local species that will thrive in your area. Some of the most popular species can be found 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 is commonly seen in recently burned areas. It flowers from May through July.
Carpenter’s Square: S. marilandica is the species that 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.
My Very Own Figwort
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 it is, 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 can be found at low elevations on streambanks or in damp clearings. Dig into the soil to find the thickened root and transplant into average soil with up to 70% shade. Water occasionally and your pollinator bar will be open for business in no time.