1089 Veronicastrum virginicumCommon Names: culver's root, blackroot Family: Scrophulariaceae (figwort Family)
Culver's root is a big herbaceous perennial with lance shaped leaves 2-4 in (5-10 cm) long, borne in whorls along the upright stem. An individual plant can get 4-7 ft (1.2-2.1 m) tall, with a spread of 2-4 ft (60-120 cm). The white, pinkish or pale blue flowers are tiny, even with their stamens protruding way out. But, they are carried in dense terminal spikes (racemes) up to 9 in (22 cm) in length. At first there is just the one flowering raceme at the top of the stem, but as the season progresses, numerous branches with terminal racemes arise from the main stem, and the plant looks like a large, flashy candelabra. The individual flowers bloom in succession from the top downward on each raceme throughout much of the summer. There are a handful of cultivars available, including one with snow white flowers and another with pink blossoms. Culver's root has, of late, become a popular wild flower in the trade and is becoming widely available.
Veronicastrum virginicum occurs naturally in eastern North America from Manitoba south to Texas, and east to Ontario and Georgia. In Florida, Culver's root is known only from Escambia County in the extreme western Panhandle. Culver's root grows in moist meadows, prairies and open woods, especially on rocky hillsides.
CultureThis American native wild flower grows well in average moist or even dry soils. It may need staking, especially if grown in part shade. Light: This American native wild flower grows in full sun to partial shade. In the south, afternoon shade is a plus. Moisture: Provide supplemental irrigation for Culver's root during prolonged dry spells. Established plantings are, of course, tolerant of normal droughts as can occur in its natural range. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 - 8. Propagation: Seeds may require 4-6 weeks before they germinate, and are best sown in autumn or winter. The tiny seeds should be sown on the soil surface. You can also divide the root stock in spring.
Culver's root is a large, but elegant perennial, and it looks great in the perennial bed or shrub border where its slender spikes of showy bright flowers can stand above shorter plants. A mass of these beauties (two or three plants make a mass!) is a real show stopper. Culver's root is great for cut flowers, too. If you cut off the flower bud at the tip of a raceme as soon as it begins to open, the lateral buds may open all at once, producing a fuller, bottle brush-like inflorescence. Culver's root is very popular with native American insects, including several species of bees, butterflies and moths.
Infusions from the bitter root of Culver's root were used medicinally by Native Americans and early European settlers, and the plant derives its common name from an early American physician who advocated its use. Chemicals in the root apparently have effects on liver function, and are cathartic and emetic.
Culver's root is listed by several northeastern states as Endangered or Threatened, probably because of its limited distribution and the potential for over collecting. The Scrophulariaceae, a family everyone loves to pronounce, contains some 200 genera, and more than 4000 species. There are just two species of Veronicastrum - this North American native and one in Siberia.
Most sources say Culver's root is toxic when ingested. What would you expect from a plant that causes vomiting and is a powerful laxative?
Steve Christman 7/21/08