Obedient Plant or False Dragonhead (Physostegia virginiana): An Obliging Beautiful Beast
Jim Lakin MD, Master Gardener
“False Dragonhead” is so named because its flowers look like menacing dragons (if you’ve been binging on Game of Thrones). It picked up the “false” from being erroneously classified under the genus of “true” dragonheads, Drachocephalum, at one time. Regardless of it’s rather forbidding name, “False Dragonhead” can be a wonderful plant in your native garden. This article explains why.
Physostegia sp. acquired one of its common names from the remarkable property of its stalks staying where you bend them. I have observed that this ability to obediently stay put is unique among plants and grandchildren. Its other common name, “false dragonead “stems from its flowers looking like menacing dragons (if you’ve been binging on Game of Thrones). It picked up the “false” from being erroneously classified under the genus of “true” dragonheads, Drachocephalum, at one time.
Whatever you choose to call it, Physostegia virginiana is a lovely native perennial plant producing white to soft pink or pale lavender tubular flowers arranged on a spike at the top of a two-to-four-foot stem. Its showy blooms appear for about a month in late summer into early fall. Since it propagates by underground rhizomes it will form extensive thickets given the right conditions with moist, rich soil. It is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) and can be a bit aggressive. Thus, Obedient Plant usually works better in natural rather than traditional gardens. Its closely related cousin, Physostegia angustifolia, has less of a spreading tendency, forming looser clumps. It might be an alternative for more formal garden settings.
Either species will attract pollinators with long proboscises such as sphinx moths, bumblebees and butterflies. The adult plant seems to be pretty deer resistant. If you are planning a garden spot of mixed native perennials, you might consider pairing Obedient Plant with Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra), Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) and/or Blazing Star (Liatris spicata).
Since obedient plant is native to most of Eastern North America including the Midwest, it usually does quite well in Minnesota, once established (USDA Zones 3-9). As we mentioned, it prefers moist to medium soils as are found in open floodplain woodlands, wet prairies or wetland edges. It likes full sun but can do well in partial shade. It can be propagated easily by division of clumps. To grow from seed, cold stratification for 60 days is needed before germination. When planting, allow one to two feet spacing. How ever you choose to come by this lovely native perennial, it will be an attractive pollinator-friendly addition to your garden.
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