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Plants of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States

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Common Name
Obedient Plant (False Dragonhead)

 

Scientific Name
Physostegia virginiana (L.) Benth.

 

Plant Family
Mint (Lamiaceae)

Garden Location
Woodland

 

Prime Season
Late Summer Flowering

 

 

Obedient Plant is a native erect perennial growing on 4-angled hairless stems from 1 to 5 feet high, often branched near the top.

The leaves are opposite, narrowly lance shaped, that are usually with sharp pointed widely spaced teeth, and usually without stalks.

The inflorescence is a 2 to 10 inch high hairy raceme (spike) of showy flowers.

The flowers are five-parted, with tubular corollas that range in color from from rose to pale purple to white. The corolla expands in size beyond the calyx opening and has an upper and lower lip, often with dots or other small markings of a deeper color. Four stamens with purple anthers hang just under the upper lip opening which has a broad hood and functions as two combined petals. A style is between the stamens. The lower lip has 3 lobes, functioning as three combined petals, with the center lobe being the largest. The green calyx tube has 5 pointed teeth and it has dense fine hair. The outer surface of the corolla also has fine hair as does the inside throat of the corolla. The individual flowers are stalked and rise from the axil of a leaf-like bract that separates one flower from another on the raceme. Flowers are up to 1.3 inches long and open from the base of the raceme toward the top.

Seed: After fertilization the calyx inflates to produce a small smooth reddish-brown nutlet, 3-sided, sharply angled between 2 sides and rounded on the other side. These are produced in groups of 4 by each flower. Seeds require 60 days of cold stratification for germination.

 

Habitat: Obedient Plant grows from a rhizomatous root system and can rapidly form clumps and colonies. It can be aggressive and clumps should be divided frequently. They transplant easily. They will grow in full or partial sun as this pink Woodland clump in Eloise Butler (shown below) indicates but without full sun plants can become top heavy and floppy without staking. Prune back early to shorten plant height to avoid this. Best with good moisture in wet to mesic conditions, but will tolerate somewhat dry locations. Because of the aggressive growth plant them where you can control them.

Names: The common name refers to the ability of the flower to stay temporarily in the position placed by touching it. The alternate name of False Dragonhead refers to the plants supposed resemblance to a European plant named Dragonhead. An older scientific name for this species is Physostegia speciosa. The genus name, Physostegia, is from two Greek words - physa, meaning 'a bladder', and stege, for 'roof covering', together meaning "bladder covering" and refers to the inflated calyx which covers the seed before dispersal. The species name virginiana means 'of Virginia', the state, where the plant was first collected. The author name for the plant classification - ‘Benth.’ is for George Bentham, (1800-1884) English botanist, who published many texts of which his Handbook of the British Flora is most famous.

Comparisons: The 4-angled stems are most common to the Mint family and a number of mints have similar looking flowers. Obedient plant is widely grown by nurseries and wild populations may in fact be escapees from cultivation. Nursery stock is most often pink flowered while true wild populations tend toward white.

See bottom of page for notes on the Garden's planting history, distribution in Minnesota and North America, lore and other references.

False Dragonhead White flowers root

Above: Obedient Plant has flowers colored from white to rose to pale purple. The root system is rhizomatous.

Below: The corolla expands in size beyond the calyx opening and has an upper and lower lip, often with dots or other small markings of a deeper color. Four stamens with purple anthers hang just under the upper lip

White flower version Obedient Plant

Below: 1st photo - The green calyx tube has 5 pointed teeth and it has dense fine hair, rising the axil of a small bract. 2nd photo - The stem is 4-angled and hairless. Leaves are stalkless but not clasping.

calyx Stem node

Below: Leaves are long and narrow with sharp teeth that are widely spaced. The leaf underside (2nd photo) has a prominent ridge formed by the central vein.

Leaf leaf underside

Seed Production

Below: 1st photo - The flower calyx inflates at the base during seed production, eventually opening at the top. 2nd photo - Each capsule produces four small smooth reddish-brown nutlets, 3-sided, sharply angled between 2 sides and rounded on the other side.

seed capsules seeds
False Dragonhead

Notes:

Notes: Eloise Butler first introduced Obedient Plant to the Garden in 1908 when she obtained plants from Minnehaha (park area of Minneapolis) on Sept. 27th and from Indian Mound on Oct. 4th. In 1912 she noted planting it on June 28 and on June 1, 1914, she obtained 100 plants from the Fort Snelling area of Minneapolis. Martha Crone planted it in 1936 and 1945 and listed it on her 1951 inventory of plants in the Garden at that time. She listed it as P. speciosa, which today is considered a synonym for the current name.

Obedient Plant is native and well distributed throughout most of Minnesota except more dry counties of the SW, South and West. In North America is is found in the eastern 2/3rds of the continent from the central plains to the coast in the U.S. and from Manitoba eastward in Canada except Labrador.

P. virginiana has two subspecies of which subsp. virginiana is considered by the U. of Minnesota to be the native plant to Minnesota. Subsp. praemorsa has been reported, but no specimens have ever been collected. The MN DNR makes no reference to that subspecies on its plant list. This is the only species of Physostegia found in Minnesota.

Martha Crone wrote in the Friends newsletter in Oct. 1968: "The False Dragon Head also known as Obedient Plant or Lion's Heart, is a good reliable perennial of easy culture giving a great deal of satisfaction in a border. It likes rather moist soil altho will do well in an ordinary garden. The flowers range from purplish red through rosy pink, Closely borne in graceful terminal spikes on erect stems. The blossoms may be pushed in any direction and will retain this pose for some time. On windy days the flowers all turn in one direction. When once established they spread readily. They bloom continuously from July through September and are very resistant to frost. "

References and site links

References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.

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