Plant of the Week
Culver's Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
By Christopher David Benda
This common perennial prairie plant is called Culver's root. Formerly in the Figwort family (Scrphullariaceae), this species is now placed in the Plantain family (Plantaginaceae). The name “Veronicastrum” refer to this species resembling plants in the genus Veronica. The species epithet “virginicum” refers to this species being first collected in Virginia. The name “Culver” likely refers to a pioneer physician of that name that advocated for medicinal use of the roots.
Culver's Root is a tall plant, reaching up to six feet in height. It has finely toothed leaves that are lanceolate and occur in a whorl of 3 to 8 leaflets. The inflorescence has several wand-like flowering spikes that resemble an elegant candelabra. Each spike bears many small, white, tubular flowers about a half inch long with protruding, orange-brown colored stamens. The individual flowers are comprised of four fused petals up to a half an inch long. A great variety of bees visit the flowers to collect pollen or drink nectar.
Its toxic properties led to its use as a medicinal plant for Native Americans and pioneers. The Cherokee used it as a tea for backaches, fever, typhus, and other ailments, while the Seneca used it as a laxative, and the Menomini used it to purge the body of evil spirits.
This species prefers moist habitats, mostly prairies and other open areas. It is the only species of Veronicastrum in North America. It occurs throughout the eastern United States, especially in the prairie states along the Mississippi River.