Eastern Figwort (Scrophularia marilandica)
By Allison Joyce
Natural Environments Program Manager
EarthWays Center, Missouri Botanical Garden
This month’s spotlight falls on Scrophularia marilandica, also known as eastern figwort. Easily overlooked by humans, this plant is a perennial favorite of wildlife.
The genus Scrophularia is home to some 200 species of flowering herbaceous plants with square stems. These plants were historically used to treat scrofula - swollen lymph nodes in the neck, a condition typically associated with tuberculosis. The common name of figwort is derived from its use in treating figs, also known as hemorrhoids. The fact that Scrophularia mariliandica is both a “scroph” botanically and a figwort by common name indicates a strong history of medicinal use by humans.
The species name marilandica simply refers to the fact that the plant occurs in Maryland. In fact, the plant can be found throughout the northeastern third of North America from Ontario, Canada south to Texas and east to Florida. Eastern figwort enjoys wide distribution throughout Missouri in rich, moist woodlands, ravines, thickets and wood margins.
Though small and dull in coloration, the flowers of eastern figwort are very interesting up close. Occurring in open, pyramidal inflorescences, the individual flowers are only 5–8 millimeters long. They are shaped like sacks and are colored green on the outside and brown to light red on the inside. Flowers occur July through October.
S. marilandica may be inconspicuous and even weedy to us, but wildlife will not miss this plant in your garden. Many bee species appreciate the nectar it provides in the fall, including honey, bumble, longhorn, sweat, and leafcutter bees. A wide variety of wasps enjoy this plant such as paper wasps, yellowjackets, and potter wasps. In autumn, ruby throated hummingbirds can be seen nectaring at the diminutive tubular flowers as they migrate south.
Eastern figwort provides more than just nectar; many insects feed upon the leaves and other tissues of the plant. Keep an eye out for aphids, flea beetles, gall fly larvae and stink bugs. The chalcedony midget, a moth, uses this species as its larval host plant. Fortunately for gardeners, mammals such as deer and rabbits find its foliage to be bitter and distasteful.
One important aspect of stewarding native habitats in our own gardens is understanding the importance of supporting the entire food chain. Wasps and aphids might not win popularity contests but they do provide sustenance to the more charismatic members of our beloved Missouri ecosystems. Planting eastern figwort may increase your insect population, but only enough to feed the birds, lizards, and frogs.
Learn more by visiting the Missouri Botanical Garden’s webpage on eastern figwort.