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What’s In Bloom: Culver’s Root

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July can be a discouraging month in the mid-Atlantic.  Its unrelenting heat and humidity can feel punishing, and the thought of doing in anything in the garden during the day seems insane.  Even the shade is hot and sultry, and I find myself aching for a breeze.  Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum), a tall native plant with whorls of leaves and finger-like flowers, dances with every breeze, refreshing to the eye and spirit.

Finding Culver’s Root growing in the wild in a meadow is like finding a bunch of fairy wands springing out of the ground. Planting it in the garden feels like cheating; its so easy to grow you don’t really have much to do once the shovel is put back in the shed.

The name, it seems, is a bit of a mystery.  The authors of the website Illinois Wildflowers  postulate that perhaps Culver was a doctor or healer of some sort – apparently the root of this plant has “purgative properties.”  (I don’t think I’ll be making tea with this one any time soon. )

I always assumed, though, that the name was somehow a derivation of the term “culvert” – since this grows very well no matter where you plant it, be it ditch or garden, roadside or trash dump – provided the plant gets full or part sun.  In fact, it is one of those wildflowers you find impossible to move or remove from any location where its been planted.

Bees love it, which makes me love it too.  I sometimes stand at dusky twilight when the sun’s brutality finally relents a bit, and watch the pollinators come and hungrily work their way up and down the strands of tiny white flowers.  Some years I get moths and butterflies too, although this year both seem in short supply in all gardens everywhere.

Finding Culver’s Root at most commercial nurseries is still a challenge.  I suspect not many stock it because its height can make it hard to place in a traditional landscape.  That is a shame, however, because it thrives on neglect and seems to be a great selection for urban soils.  One day I think others will realize this plant’s charm and tenacity, and it will become widely used.

In my garden, I have placed it between a large stand of purple coneflowers and some clumps of switchgrass.  It makes a nice transition between the two other tall plants, and is one of the few plants that can actually win in a face off with the coneflowers – who are sometimes bossy-looking in a small garden space.

The seeds are not known for having much wildlife value; no birds are known to favor them.  I have used this bit of biology to fend off any guilt I might feel about deadheading these plants completely when they are done blooming in mid-summer.  The whorls of leaves take on a really pretty appearance after deadheading, and by doing so I avoid the need to stake this five foot tall plant.

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