Eastern Figwort (Carpenter's Square)

Eastern figwort flowers
Scientific Name
Scrophularia marilandica
Scrophulariaceae (figworts)

Eastern figwort is an herbaceous perennial with 1 or more upright, four-sided (square) stems from the base, unbranched or few-branching, bearing a branching, spreading, open panicle of scoop-shaped flowers at the top of the stem.

The leaves are opposite, lance-shaped, sharply pointed, with fine teeth, on slender leaf stems.

The individual flowers are small, sacklike, 2-lipped, green outside and magenta-brown inside. There are 5 petal lobes: the 2 on top are largest and hoodlike; the 2 on the sides are shorter, and the lowest lobe is shortest and greenish. The anthers of the 4 fertile stamens are yellow; these are situated at the bottom of the flower, next to the lowest petal lobe. A fifth, infertile stamen, called a staminode, is a filament with a flattened, expanded tip and is pressed up under the upper pair of petal lobes. In this species, the staminode is reddish brown or purple. Blooms July–October.

Each flower matures into an egg-shaped or globe-shaped, shiny-surfaced, 2-celled capsule with a beaked tip, containing numerous tiny seeds.

Similar species: At first glance, eastern figwort might appear to be some kind of mint (in family Lamiaceae) because of the square stems, opposite, toothed leaves, and two-lipped flowers. Mints, however, have the ovary segmented into 4 lobes and have 2 or 4 stamens (lacking the fifth, infertile stamen characteristic of the figworts and beardtongues).

One other species of Scrophularia has been recorded from Missouri, but it is represented by only a single historical collection, from 1912, in what is now the Kansas City metro area. This plant, American figwort (or early or lance-leaf figwort, S. lanceolata), blooms May–June and has larger, dull-surfaced capsules; its fifth stamen is yellowish green (instead of dark purple to purplish brown). It is native to North America and occurs in Canada and much of the United States except for the southeastern quarter.

Apart from American/early figwort, eastern figwort’s closest relatives in the Missouri flora — in the same family, and that you might find growing out of cultivation — are nonnatives. They include our few species of mulleins (Verbascum), usually seen along roadsides and in other disturbed places; and butterfly bush (also called orange eye or summer lilac, Buddleja davidii), popularly cultivated as an ornamental shrub. Butterfly bush sometimes escapes from cultivation, and it has become a problem invasive plant or has become naturalized in the Pacific Northwest, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. Its invasive potential is worrisome, and there are many Missouri native shrubs that provide greater value for pollinators and wildlife.

Other Common Names
Late Figwort

Height: usually 2–5 feet; sometimes to 8½ feet.

Where To Find

Scattered nearly statewide. Widely distributed in the eastern United States.

Occurs in bottomland forests, edges of moist, rich upland forests, banks of streams and rivers, and bottomland prairies. Easily overlooked.

Native Missouri wildflower.

Taxonomically, the figwort family bears some discussion. About 2001 there was big news in the world of botany, as scientists divided the large figwort family (Scrophulariaceae; pronounced SKROF-yoo-lair-ee-ay-cee-ee) into several smaller families. For many decades, that family was thought to include about 4,000 species globally. But botanists asked if all those plants truly were so closely related. By 2001, DNA evidence proved that many “scrophs” belonged in separate families.

In references published before 2001, don’t be surprised if you see now-excluded plants listed as members of the figwort family, including Indian paintbrushes, penstemons or beardtongues, gerardias, louseworts, monkeyflowers, water starworts, blue-eyed Mary, toadflaxes, and speedwells.

Today, there are fewer than 1,700 species in the figwort/scroph family, and eastern figwort is one of only seven true scrophs in Missouri.

Native wildflower gardeners sometimes cultivate this herbaceous perennial in woodland gardens. The flowers, though small and greenish purple or brown, are interesting and can be numerous on the tall, branching flower clusters. The flowers attract hummingbirds and a variety of insect pollinators. The clusters of egg-shaped fruiting capsules are visually interesting.

Figworts, as a genus and family of plants, have a long global history of medicinal uses. The family and genus name come from the Latin root scrophulari-, which refers to a tumor or glandular swelling; the English form of the word, scrofula, refers to swellings or a tuberculosis of lymph nodes, usually in the neck. The common name figwort — again, applied to several species in the genus and family — refers to a historical use of at least some of these plants for treating a condition delicately called “figs,” or piles — today, better known as hemorrhoids.

This species was used medicinally by Native Americans, who made tea from the roots and used it for a variety of ailments and as a general tonic.

The other common name, carpenter’s square, refers to the square stems of this plant. You might be familiar with one of our native rosinweeds, cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum, a tall plant in the sunflower family), which is often called carpenter’s weed for the same reason. Botany nerds will note that a majority of Missouri plants with square stems are members of the mint family, and these two are notable exceptions!

The unusual flowers of figworts, though not very attractive to humans, contain plenty of nectar and do appeal to a variety of native bees and wasps, including apids (honey, bumble, and longhorn bees), halictids (sweat bees), megachilids (leafcutter bees), vespids (paper wasps and yellowjackets), and eumenine wasps (potter or mason wasps).

Hummingbirds also take nectar from the flowers. Considering this species blooms from midsummer through the end of the growing season in October or even November, it no doubt provides important food for ruby-throated hummingbirds as they migrate south.

Many insects suck the juices or feed on the leaves or other plant parts, including aphids, flea beetles, gall fly larvae, and stink bugs. A noctuid moth called the chalcedony midget (Elaphria chalcedonia) uses this species, as well as beardtongues and monkey flowers, as its larval host plant. Its caterpillars are brownish and nondescript, but the adults, though camouflaged in shades of yellow, tan, gray, and brown, are beautifully patterned.

The insects that feed on this and other native plants frequently become food for birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.

Mammals find the bitter foliage distasteful.

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About Wildflowers, Grasses and Other Nonwoody Plants in Missouri
A very simple way of thinking about the green world is to divide the vascular plants into two groups: woody and nonwoody (or herbaceous). But this is an artificial division; many plant families include some species that are woody and some that are not. The diversity of nonwoody vascular plants is staggering! Think of all the ferns, grasses, sedges, lilies, peas, sunflowers, nightshades, milkweeds, mustards, mints, and mallows — weeds and wildflowers — and many more!