The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States
Lanceleaf Figwort (American Figwort, Early Figwort)
Scrophularia lanceolata Pursh
Early Summer Flowering
Lanceleaf Figwort is an erect native perennial growing to 6 feet high on an unbranched stem whose sides are flat and slightly grooved. Stems may vary from almost free of hair to having a fine glandular hair.
The leaves are opposite, stalked, somewhat triangular to lance-shaped, with pointed tips, abrupt bases that are never heart-shaped, double-toothed margins, smooth surfaces and a winged stalk that is 1/6 to more than 1/3 the length of the leaf blade which averages about 3 inches long, with lower leaf blades the longest and upper blades shorter.
The inflorescence is a tall open panicle with 6 to 8 inch long side clusters rising from the upper stem nodes. Side clusters are regularly branched. These branches have glandular hairs.
Individual flowers are 5-parted, somewhat urn or tubular shaped with a corolla that varies from green to yellowish to reddish brown, about 5/8 inch long. The corolla is inflated just outside the calyx before forming distinct lobes, opening at the top into a narrow mouth, with two veined lobes above, that are flat and projecting forward, and three shorter lobes below - composed of two laterals projecting forward and a central lower lobe turned under and reflexed backward. The calyx is very small, bell-shaped, cleft into 5 unequal lobes. There are 4 stamens and a sterile stamen (a staminode) which has a blunt yellow-green fan-shaped head that is visible within the mouth of the flower tucked up against the upper lip. The 4 regular stamens in the lower section of the mouth have yellow-green filaments, widest near the anthers, which are yellow. The stamens closely surround the pistil. The stamens are erect when ripening (as shown below) and then droop downward. They are in pairs of slightly different length (subdidynamous). The ovary is 2-locular.
Seed: A fertile flower produces a 1/4 inch long dull brown ovoid, - pear shaped - 2-celled capsule containing many small seeds that are black, of irregular shape and pitted. There are faint nerve lines on the outer surface of the capsule. The capsule splits into 2 halves to release seeds which are extremely light, averaging 185,000 per ounce. Seeds are spread by wind shaking the stem. Seeds are estimated to need 60 days of cold stratification to break dormancy and need light to germinate. They therefore must be surface sown, just as if they fell from the plant.
Habitat: Lanceleaf Figwort is found in meadows, fields, wood edges and prairies. It grows in wet-mesic to dry conditions and partial sun to shade is best for the plant although some of the specimens shown here were growing in full sun but in dense vegetation to shade the base of the plant. It has a caudex and a fibrous root system. The plant, while perennial, seems to not stay in the same spot very long. In the wild it apparently does not compete well with aggressive grasses and other species. The seeds are viable and new plants appear in different places from year to year.
Names: The genus, Scrophularia, is a throwback to the old Doctrine of Signatures wherein if a plant was seen to have a resemblance to a human condition or to human anatomy (in this case, a tumor or glandular swelling), the plant was thought to be associated with treatment of ailments of those conditions and body parts. The genus was named by an Italian physician in 1474, after a condition found in human lymph nodes called scrophula, which condition resembles the knobs on the rhizomes of certain Figworts. The word for the disease is derived from the Latin scrofule. The species, lanceolata, is more straight-forward, meaning 'lance-shaped' like these leaves.
The author name for the plant classification, ‘Pursh’ is for Frederick Traugott Pursh (1774-1820) German-American botanist who wrote A Systematic Arrangement and Description of the Plants of North America, and was the botanist who catalogued and described the plants brought back by the exploring expedition of Lewis and Clark. Pursh was disliked by American botanists because he took some of these plants to New York with him and later to London treating them as his own property. He did the same years later with much material collected by Thomas Nuttall, writing it up with no credit to Nuttall. Pursh first collected this plant in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s.
Comparisons: Only one other Figwort grows in our area that is similar; that is the Eastern or Maryland Figwort, S. marilandica, but it is much less common and flowers later. The DNR census finds it in only 14 counties, all in the SE quadrant of Minnesota. It does overlap the range of S. lanceolate east of the Mississippi. It has an irregularly branched flower panicle, leaf stalks that are more than 1/3 to the length of the blade, the leaf base is frequently heart-shaped and the sterile stamen is purple.
See bottom of page for notes on the Garden's planting history, distribution in Minnesota and North America, lore and other references.
Above: 1st photo - The inflorescence is an open panicle with a series of branched clusters. 2nd photo - The five lobes of the corolla are visible and inside, tucked up against the upper lips is the sterile yellow-green stamen with a fan-shaped tip. The other 4 stamens are in the lower part of the throat with yellow anthers. 3rd photo - The stem is unbranched below the inflorescence and grooved. Note the fine pubescence on the stem.
Below: The plant is quite tall with widely spaced opposite leaves. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Below: 1st photo - Note the turned under lower central lobe of the corolla and the two forward projecting upper petals and the large inflation of the corolla outside the calyx. 2nd photo - The calyx is short with 5 pointed unequal teeth.
Below: Leaves have a double sawtooth margin and a winged stalk that is less than 1/3 the length of the leaf blade. Bases are truncate, not heart-shaped. The underside (2nd photo) is pale in color and prominently shows the veins.
Below: The pear-shaped capsule splits in two to release small black irregular shaped seeds.
Below: The inflorescence.
Below: A robust multi-stemmed plant group.
Notes: Lanceleaf Figwort is indigenous to the Garden. Eloise Butler noted its presence on May 31, 1907, using the older synonym Scrophularia leporella which was applied at that time to an older common name for this species - Early Figwort. In North America the plant is found in all of the U.S. except AZ and the southern states from Texas eastward to South Carolina. In Canada it is found in the lower Provinces except Manitoba. Within Minnesota it is found throughout the state with the exceptions being some counties in the far northern tier and the NW section of the state. As described above, this is one of two native Figworts in the state. Susan Wilkins has added plants in 2020.
Medicinal uses: Millspaugh (Ref. #27) reports that a poultice of the plant would soothe inflamed tumors and that a tonic could be made for treating glandular disorders. The entire fresh plant just before flowering would be chopped and pulped and then with alcohol, a tincture was made that had a beautiful crimson color but a rank odor and taste. The principal chemical extracted from the plant was called Scrophularin, but the plant was never listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia.
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.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"