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