VERONICASTRUM virginicum (L.) Farwell
By Thelma Glover
Culver’s Root, a perfect 10 in the perennial world, has the potential to become the newest star in the perennial garden cast. Tall, regal and elegant it needs no face lift from the perennial plant doctor. It’s absolutely gorgeous just as God made it. The only help it needs is a promotional campaign to make gardeners aware of it’s existence and for more local nurseries to make it available. This is not just another pretty face, it’s a cinch to cultivate, easy to propagate, dependable, has a very long blooming season and can fill a large variety of niches in the home landscape.
Found growing in the wild from Newfoundland to northern Florida, and westward to Texas, it is found in Georgia in 6 or 7 northern counties (depending on which distribution atlas you read). The habitats in which it grows are very variable from wet to dry, sun to light shade, in prairies and meadows, on stream banks and in both dry and upland woods. It’s many different habitats in the wild give a good clue to how many different places it can be used in the home landscape.
Culver’s Root is a member of the Scrophulariaceae family. It is the only one of the two members included in the genus, Veronicastrum, native to North America. The other member is native to Siberia. The generic name refers to its close relationship to the Veronicas, in whose genus it previously was placed. Culver apparently refers to a person’s name, possible an early physician or someone who was known to prescribe the plant’s roots medicinally. The root’s value as a purgative was well known in early America by Native Americans as well as the early white settlers. Rafinesque wrote “the root is medical and commonly used in a warm decoction as a purgative and emetic and a strong decoction of the fresh root is a violent and disagreeable, but effectual and popular remedy in the Western States, for the summer bilious fevers”. Bartram wrote that “ the roots of this plant were boiled in milk for a powerful vomit by the black inhabitants”. Native Americans used a decoction of it’s roots called Leptandra, which was also an earlier generic name for it, for a variety of other ailments including backaches, colic, typhus, and as an antiseptic. It is currently listed in many modern day herbals as a remedy for many of the same ailments.
Description: Culver’s Root is a tall herbaceous perennial which begins blooming the first week in June in the Atlanta area and continues well into August. At a distance it can be confused with Black Cohosh which blooms at the same time. It’s height can vary from 3 to 6 feet tall but it usually averages closer to 4’. It is very stately, graceful, tall and extremely erect with slim stems and sometimes 2 shorter stems forking from the upper l/2 of the main stalk. The dark green, pointed, narrow leaves are sharply serrate and in whorls of 3-6 around the stem. The tiny white flowers, less than a centimeter long, with strongly exerted stamens, are in racemes on a tight, erect, crowded terminal 4-7” extremely showy spike. When it is blooming it looks much more like a sparkling fairy’s wand than does Chamaelirium luteum, the plant that is commonly referred to as Fairy Wand .
Culture: Provide full sun and medium rich, slightly acid soil for Culver’s Root. If there is a prolonged dry spell in summer it would appreciate supplemental water; but otherwise it can be depended upon to take care of itself and provide an incredible display of sparkling, snowy, white flowering spikes for at least 8-l0 weeks in mid summer. Although more often found growing in high, light shade in it’s native habitats, like so many of our native perennials which have no choice in the matter, when cultivated it prefers full sun and freedom from weedy competition to reach it’s full potential. It grows relatively slowly for the first year but makes up for lost time in the second growing season. After watching it grow in a garden situation for five years, there is no indication of too much aggression or any other problems.
Propagation: The seeds of Culver’s Root are very viable and easily propagated. They are contained in small capsules that turn a deep rich dark brown, almost black, in late summer or early fall indicating the seeds inside are ripe. Each capsule contains lots of seeds so collecting only one of the ripe spikes will provide many flowers. I’ve never read that the seeds need a stratification period, but I’ve found that a cold, moist 6-8 week stratification produces faster and nearly l00% germination for greenhouse grown plants. Alternatively, plant them outside upon collection in the fall and let nature take it’s course. If the seeds are to be saved for planting in the future, store them dry in sealed containers in the refrigerator. Seedlings tend to grow rather slowly but liquid fertilizer applied periodically can really speed their growth. Plants grown from seeds will flower in their second year. For a lot, or only a few plants, seeds are much more reliable than stem cuttings which are slow to root and temperamental initially. Stem cuttings also won’t produce flowering plants usually until the third year. A better way to acquire mature plants is to divide large clumps in late fall or early spring
Garden Use: Culver’s Root is always much more striking planted in large groups rather than in small scatterings. It’s magnificent in the back row of a sunny, perennial border where its showy white spires provide a perfect vertical accent for shorter, more rounded, mounding plants such as Rudbeckia, Stoke’s Aster, Gallardia, and Monarda. One of the most beautiful combinations is with Salvia greggii, ‘Violet Queen’ Monarda and Phlox ‘David’. The silvery white of Culver’s Root and the pure white of ‘David’ tone the hot, vivid colors of the Salvia and Monarda combination that might be too overpowering otherwise. It’s a natural in an all white garden planted to be viewed at twilight. Combine it with any of the mounding Spiraea species and consider the contrast of it’s deep green, simple, narrow leaves planted with the blue-green compound leaves of Baptisia and Thermopsis. Because of it’s toleration of wet soils, it works well in hard to deal with situations such as detention ponds or other wetlands which cannot support plants not adapted to overly moist soils. Combine it with Cardinal Flower, Blue Lobelia, Turtleheads, Swamp Milkweed, Joe Pye Weed and Ironweed to transform these situations into real showplaces. It makes a wonderful cut flower lasting as much as a week in fresh arrangements. It also can be used in dried arrangements.
Missouri Wildflowers Nursery Meadowbrook Nursery Carolina Nurseries 9814 Pleasant Hill Road Route 5, Box 724 739 Gaillard Road Jefferson City, MO 65109 Marion, NC 28752 Moncks Corner, SC. 29461 (573) 496-3003 (704) 738-8300 (800) 845-2065 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Georgia Perimeter College Native Plant Botanical Garden
3251 Panthersville Road
Decatur, GA 30034
Coffey, T., 1993, The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers, Facts on File, Inc., NY
Gleason, H.A., 1952, New Britton and Brown Illustrated Flora of the Northeastern United States & Adjacent Canada, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY
Jones Jr., S. B. and N.Coile, undated(1988), The Distribution of the Vascular Flora of Georgia., Dept. of Botany, UGA, Athens, GA
Mellinger, M., 1984, Atlas of the Vascular Flora of Ga, Ga. Botanical Society
Millspaugh, C. F., 1974, American Medicinal Plants, Dover Pub., NY