Wood Betony (Common Lousewort)

Media
Photo of wood betony plants with flowers
Scientific Name
Pedicularis canadensis
Family
Orobanchaceae (broomrapes); formerly Scrophulariaceae (figworts)
Description

Wood betony, also called common lousewort, often is found in large colonies. The flowers are in dense terminal clusters on unbranched stalks, light yellow, sometimes tinged with pink or purple, 2-lipped, the upper much longer than the lower, curving over the stamens. Each flower is subtended by an oblong, leaflike bract. Blooms April-May. Leaves are pinnately lobed, fernlike. Basal and most stem leaves are on long petioles; the stem leaves are alternate. At least the upper part of the plants is hairy. In early spring, the emerging leaves have a beautiful wine-red color.

Similar species: Swamp wood betony or swamp lousewort (P. lanceolata) flowers in summer and fall, grows in swampy open meadows and limey soils, and is most common in the southeastern Ozarks; its stem leaves are usually opposite, and the upper part of the stem is not hairy.

Size
Height: to 10 inches when flowering; growing taller later.
Where To Find
image of Wood Betony Common Lousewort distribution map
Statewide; absent from some southeastern counties.
Occurs in dry and open woodlands, prairies, shaded glades, bottomlands, streamsides, and wooded valleys; often in leached or acid soils.
Many plants in this genus are called “lousewort” from an antique belief that cattle would be plagued with lice if they ate these plants. There is something parasitic about this plant, however: It is a root parasite on other plants.
In addition to its taproot, wood betony sends out side roots that can attach to the roots of nearby plants such as grasses and tap nourishment from them. It can grow without host plants, however.
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Similar Species
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!