Thursday, September 27, 2012

Wildflower Wednesday: The Not-So-Obedient Plant

Fall has definitely arrived in my part of Illinois with cooler nights and frequent rainy days.  Monday morning I awoke to find the whole yard had turned white--the first frost of the season.  Fortunately, nothing in the garden seems to have been affected by the frost.  Thanks to all the rain the last several weeks, annuals and perennials are looking better in September than they did in July.  The butterfly garden especially has come alive, due to the fall-blooming natives that have almost taken over this area.

One of those natives is Physostegia virginiana, commonly called Obedient Plant.  A member of the mint family, Obedient Plant grows up to four feet tall with flowers that are purplish, pink, or white.  This is the first year that all the blooms I have are white, rather than pink, which may mean that they are reverting back to their wild state, since those plants tend to have mostly white blooms.  It is pollinated primarily by bumblebees, though other long-tongued bees and hummingbirds may also visit it.

Blooms first open up at the bottom, then proceed upward.
 Sometimes called False Dragonhead as well, the plant was given the name "Obedient" because the individual flowers stay in place if you move them.  I'm not sure why anyone would want to have blooms facing a certain way, but hey, if that's important to you, then who am I to judge:)

Doing some research, I discovered that yes, it's true--these little blooms are quite cooperative to being manipulated.

Not everyone loves this plant--in fact, some would go so far as to call it a thug or even invasive.  Most references are a little kinder, but do warn that especially in moist soils it can "sometimes spread aggressively."  My butterfly garden was anything but "moist" this summer, yet the Obedient Plants did just fine; in fact, I think they're determined to take over this area, if given the chance.  As I looked at all the seedlings that came up this spring, a question came to my mind.

 Why do we plant something when we know it could spread so rampantly?  After some careful thought, I've come up with a few answers, but feel free to add more in a comment.

1. Ignorance. Most people know that you should never plant certain species like purple loosestrife or some types of honeysuckle, plants that top most states' invasive plant lists.  But plant tags on other species at garden centers or plant sales don't always tell you that something could take over your garden.  When I first started my butterfly garden several years ago, I was just learning about native plants and was excited when I found out the local Prairie Plant Society was holding a plant sale in May.  My friend Beckie and I went to the plant sale, where I picked up several natives that I knew were attractive to butterflies, including a Joe Pye Weed and an aster.  Then I noticed the Obedient Plant and snatched it up as well--I remembered reading about it on someone's blog the previous fall, but I didn't remember any of its characteristics, unfortunately.

Asters are good companions for Obedient Plant--they all started from one little plant here as well.
I've often told the story of that first little Obedient Plant--how it grew to two feet tall that summer, until one day Sophie, still a rambunctious puppy then, bounded through the garden and broke off the stem.  I was upset, thinking that was the end of it.  But to my surprise, the following year it came back--and had multiplied more prolifically than a rabbit!  Fast forward to this spring, when I noticed Obedient seedlings covering at least a third of this small garden area. If I hadn't pulled out at least half the seedlings, they would have choked out some of the Susans and other plants that aren't quite so aggressive.  I have learned my lesson--before I buy an unfamiliar plant, I do a little research first.  "Aggressive spreader" or "spreads by rhizomes" are red flags that I probably don't want to add this plant to my already crowded garden, no matter how pretty it may be.

In a friend's garden, a border of gravel keeps Obedient Plant from spreading to the neighbors.

2. You can contain it some way., whether in a pot or an enclosed area. I've learned that bamboo is a notorious spreader and difficult to eradicate once it's established.  Yet I know gardeners who grow it and other invasives in large pots or in an area enclosed in some way, whether by rocks or other types of edging.  As long as the plant doesn't have seeds that could be spread by wind or birds, this method may work for a plant you simply must have, no matter its aggressive tendencies.

3.  You have lots of space and could use something that multiplies quickly. Many of us have an area where nothing seems to grow, including grass.  For me, it's an area next to my shade garden in front of a very large spruce tree.  The soil is hard clay, and thirsty tree roots drink up most of the rainfall, yet garlic mustard and a few other weeds still seem to thrive. I've transplanted a few errant lamium--another "spreader," but much better-mannered than some--in part of this area, as well as liriope and some ajuga.  The lirope hasn't done much, and the ajuga, along with some free toad lilies I received, seems to have disappeared in this summer's drought. I wouldn't mind something that spreads rather quickly to cover the bare soil and choke out the weeds in this area.

The bees enjoy all the native "spreaders" in the butterfly garden--this area has been a buzz of activity all fall.
4. Just because it's considered invasive in some areas doesn't mean it will be in your garden. Another blogger recently commented that lantana had now been labelled somewhat invasive in her state.   In my zone 5b garden, that's certainly not a problem because lantana is not hardy here; in fact, I buy a flat of it every spring.  My friend Beckie tried for years to control the false sunflowers, Heliopsis helianthoides, that were overtaking her garden.  When I asked for a few starts, she gladly gave them to me but with a warning that I might be sorry.  Naturally, they all died for me.  I tried a second time, and this time they survived.There are still a few of these in the butterfly garden, but with all the other thugs around--like Obedient Plant--they haven't had a chance to spread.  So an invasive plant in one place might not be so aggressive in another . . . of course, it's up to you whether you want to take that chance!

The white blooms often have pink or purple dots and whorls on the inside--fairy footprints perhaps??

Sometimes even the most experienced gardeners make mistakes and plant something they later regret.  But let's face it, there are some "spreaders" that are so appealing in some way that we are willing to take a chance and grow them anyway.  Sweet Autumn clematis is a good example. It is listed on the Illinois list of invasive species, yet I see it growing in so many local gardens, with good reason--its blooms are beautiful this time of year.

As for my Obedient plant, I'll continue to pull out excess seedlings in the spring because I think these pretty late-bloomers are worth it.  But if you decide to add some to your own garden, just remember that I warned you these natives are anything but obedient!

Wildflower Wednesday is celebrated the fourth Wednesday of every month and hosted by Gail at Clay and Limestone. You are welcome to join us in celebrating all things native!


  1. I had to start ripping out the obedient plant in my garden because it was so invasive. I don't think I will ever get rid of it. It is pretty this time of year though. I like your white better than the purpleish one I have.

  2. "Anything but obedient" made me smile. Actually I think many perennials fall into this category. If left to their own they take over any given space. I'm thinking of my plumbago and coneflowers that I simply adore, but have learnned that if I don't spend a little time with them in the Spring they will crowd out every thing else. Nice to know my garden needs me :)

  3. A great analysis of why we grow things we know can be aggressive!

    I grow a completely white obedient plant called 'Miss Manners' and the name is a perfect description... it has the good manners not to spread. In fact I am having trouble getting a stand going even after four years. Obedient plant is delicate and so pretty, but needs to be massed for effect. And I can't get Mis Manners to spread at all!!

  4. Lisa, I know obedient plant isn't for everyone; so far it has confined itself to my butterfly garden. If it spreads to other areas, I may not be so happy! I miss the pink blooms I've had in the past.

    Carolyn, You're right about a lot of perennials. Coneflowers are probably my favorite flower, but I have so many seedlings every spring that I have to thin them out, too.

    Laurrie, When I was looking up some info on the obedient plant, I read about 'Miss Manners.' It sounds like the perfect solution to growing this species without the fear of it spreading. I hope yours becomes a little less mannerly, though:)

  5. Our michaelmas daisies are out at last. Our first year to grow them and they're the small ones. Next year I will have to try to get some large ones that I remember from the garden as a child.

    Your obedient plant is similar to foxglove - do you have foxgloves? They tend to be invasive too.

    Frost? So soon? But your garden still looks lovely.

  6. Hi Rose, I have been thinking about aggressive spreaders a lot lately...mostly because I have several patches of them that I need to deal with. I absolutely agree on doing the research. This is something I have skipped in the past and have come to regret.
    I did have some Obedient plant, but it disappeared as the spot it was in got more and more shady. I would love to add in a new plant somewhere. It's a pretty flower after all! I think I will go with a less invasive variety like 'Miss Manners'.

  7. I have a great way to stop Obedient Plant from spreading --plant it near Black Walnut trees. Mine did not do well, and hardly bloomed at all. I actually think it's very pretty, and I have the space for a few invasives, but those walnut trees stop quite a few plants in their tracks :-)

  8. I think that this would be better than no flowers for areas that are flowerless. I can see this one in my wooded area.

  9. Obedient plant is on my wanted list, and by that, I mean I hate it. A friend gave it to me when I was a newbie gardener, and I can't get rid of it. I pull it up, dig it, search for rhizomes, etc. It is a bad plant here. The hardest part is . . . it's just so darned good looking. People don't realize it's a thug until it's too late. Thanks for profiling this one and asking some very good questions too.~~Dee

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  11. Good post! I have a soft spot for aggressive plants. My basic approach is to plant them with others that will be equally aggressive and stand back to watch them battle it out.

    You're also right that what's aggressive completely depends on location. I've planted stuff that was supposed to be a thug only to see it limp along.

    And, as your photos show, Obedient Plant is a really lovely plant.

  12. I have the lavender form of Obedient Plant and in the marginal soil that it's in it's not taking over the world just hanging on. I like it better in its stunted state; it doesn't fall and twist every which way after a hard rain.

  13. Well said Rose. I used to have Obedient plant in my garden in VA, it didn't survive the saltwater flood. Oh darn.

  14. Lucky you to have frequent rain! We're still in severe drought here--no rain since last week, and none in the forecast until Oct. 6! I know I sound like a broken record, but I've realized I'm simply tired. It sure is beautiful lately, though, with temps in the 70s and plentiful sunshine!

  15. At least it's a pretty thug! I have heard before that Obedient plant is oftentimes anything but.

    I find that I have to look up any unknown plant at a nursery since they definitely don't tell you enough information on those tags! Though like you said, for some tough locations I have purposely planted thuggish plants (please survive there, bee balm!)

  16. I plan to add some to my garden soon though I might think twice now. I've been looking for it. I do have a white form but I'm not sure if it will do well. I did not know obediant plant seeded all over the place but knew it was an aggressive spreader but controllable. Not sure on the seedlings now so I might think twice on it. We'll see next year how it all goes. One of my clients and friend just got some purple from a meeting we went to. She is supposed to share with me next summer but hmmmm. Really seedlings could be a problem I think. It sure looks good massed like that in your garden. I like the white too.

  17. For me it was a lysimachia. beautiful plant, lovely white plumes of flower, very attractive leaves, gorgeous autumn colour. I read about it, knew it "spread by rhizomes", and bought it anyway. In fact I bought 3, to make a good clump! I still love it, but boy can that plant spread... I shan't grow it in this garden...

  18. This plant resembles Foxglove to a degree, doesn't it. Despite its aggressive tendencies I am going to give it a try. There are only so many fall bloomers in zone 3, and I am going to have a space for white blooms in partial sun - so wish me luck ;)

  19. I love them and their disobedient ways....that's why I planted it! In a good year, and this wasn't, they are still not as thuggish as your prairie soil will allow them to be. Should you find yourself with an excessive amt...send them to me! I'll pay for postage! xogail

  20. This post was really helpful as a warning. We've had similar problems with mint. It seems to jump out of pots and has spread everywhere but it is at least useful in the kitchen. I'm constantly battling invasives in my native woods. The Norwegian maples are the biggest pain.

  21. A beautiful post and photo's of this plant. I have her in my garden too. But she apears everywhere in the garden.
    Have a wonderful weekend.

  22. Liz, The blooms do look a little like foxgloves, which is probably why I like this plant. Foxgloves haven't done well for me here. Frost is not unusual for us at this time of year, but I hope a hard freeze holds off for at least a month.

    Jennifer, I read about 'Miss Manners' when I did a little research on the Obedient Plant. It sounds like the perfect alternative to the wild spreader I have.

    Cassie, Those darned black walnut trees! I guess it's good they keep some plants from spreading. Have you found something that grows near them?

    Balisha, I do agree, which is also why I plant a few spreaders intentionally. I need something like this that grows in shade.

  23. I naively planted this plant in my garden. I realized that it was very invasive right away. It took me two summers to fully dig the plant out. I think it is gone, but I think I may have seen a shoot coming up a bit ago. I dug it out immediately.

    I have other plants like this. Some just don't belong in a garden. They belong in wide expanses.

  24. Definitely not so obedient then :-) but they are very pretty, I don't think we have them here but I may be wrong....Whoops I was wrong, I just looked it up and we do!

    I am still struggling with blogging Rose :-( so am sorry not to have commented on your recent excellent posts with all their beautiful photos. I loved seeing your butterflies, the Buckeye was really beautiful . I also liked the Pearl Crescent and the lovely Painted Lady which we have here too although sadly, i haven't seen one at all this year. Of course your blooms were beautiful too and that Beautyberry is so well named! On an earlier post I loved the gorgeous hummingbird ... Oh, to have those here!!

  25. Dee, I've been surprised by the commenters who said they had trouble getting this one established. But I definitely understand your feelings about this plant--once it finds a place it likes, it goes crazy! It did teach me a lesson, though, about researching carefully before planting something that might spread so rapidly.

    Jason, Good point--the only thing that keeps this Obedient plant in check is that I have so many other aggressive plants in this area. I think they're battling it out to see who can take over:) I tried to visit you again, by the way, but the link on your name isn't working for me.

    Sweetbay, This sounds like the perfect place for obedient plant--a place where nothing much grows so it can't get too carried away either.

    Janet, You don't seem very disappointed that the obedient plant didn't survive:)

    Beth, I have been taking this rain for granted and have forgotten that not everyone is getting what we have been. I would be tired of the drought, too. I do love these cooler temperatures!

  26. Rose, the url is

  27. Great post. Research is definitely the key isn't it? Garden centers in my experience lack this sort information on plant tags - they want you to buy the plant, not turn away. I've ended up with obedient plant in my garden but it blew in on the wind? It's in a hot dry location and the plants are less than a foot high so I'm not worried about it but good to know I should keep it in check.

  28. Hello there Rose girl !
    So you have frost already ? .. we are both zone 5b but our first frost date is not supposed to happen until Oct 10th .. we shall see eh ?
    Yes .. even experienced gardeners fall into those traps .. false sunflower really got me and with an invasion of aphids from hell one year .. I ripped them out but right on the other side of the fence my neighbor had them .. perhaps from me ? no doubt .. she thought they were pretty. I think she also ripped them out eventually though too .. live and learn right ?
    YES ! October is finally here : )

  29. My obedient plants did not do very well this year because of the hot and dry summer. They have spread over the years. I need to give some away.

  30. I am with you. I just take a chance and see what may or may not be invasive. With so many pests eating every new plant I stick in the garden, Not many have a chance.
    Good post, Rose!
    I love your header, very nice.

  31. Indie, When I was a newbie gardener, I trusted those plant tags--not any more. Good luck with your bee balm!

    Tina, What I'm learning from commenters here is that in poor soil or not the best conditions, it doesn't spread so easily. You could try it in such a place and maybe where you can keep it under control. It's never spread to any of my other garden areas, thankfully.

    Janet, Glad to know I'm not the only one who has done this--"spreads by rhizomes" has become a warning to me:)

    DY, The blooms do resemble foxgloves, but much smaller. I hope yours thrives...but not too much!

  32. Frost! Yikes, dont plan on any of that for some time our way. I dont have an Obedient Plant but have plenty of room for it to roam. I will be on the look out for that one as I like reseeders. Free....

  33. Gail, I'll remember you next spring when all those seedlings appear!

    Sarah, Obedient Plant is in the mint family, so that explains part of its tendencies:) I usually stay away from anything that has "mint" in the name.

    Marijke, I must say this plant hasn't invaded any other garden areas, so that's a good thing. It's welcome to stay with the other thugs in the butterfly garden, though.

    Sally, I'm not sure I could ever completely eradicate this plant if I wanted to:) But the goldenrod is even worse.

    Songbird, No need to apologize; I've been so busy lately I am way behind on reading posts, too. I was thrilled to see all the painted ladies this fall; they haven't been around the last couple of years. The last month has been a butterfly extravaganza around here!

    Jason, Thanks; I'll try that.

    Marguerite, Some plant tags aren't the least bit helpful. I'm learning to really check out plants before I buy them.

    Joy, Thankfully, the frost didn't damage anything in the garden. Live and learn--yes, I am constantly learning something new about gardening, usually after making mistakes:)

    Sage, When I give away plants like this, I try to warn people about their tendencies. I don't want anyone to be mad at me later:)

    Rosey, The invasives and weedy wildflowers seem to thrive here, so I try to be careful what I plant! The critters only eat expensive plants:)

    Skeeter, If you don't mind something spreading, then this is the plant for you. I like it, too, because it blooms in the late summer/fall when other things are winding down.

  34. I have one plant that I am ambivalent about, and always on the cusp of being ready to pull out, and that's Campanula glomerata (clustered bellflower). When it is in bloom for about 3 weeks at the beginning of summer is it beautiful, and it coordinates wonderfully with the surrounding plants. However, it is ugly for the rest of the year, and it spreads way too much, into the surrounding area and lawn. It is really too ill mannered for the garden. I've frequently been on the verge of ripping it all out.

  35. Rose, you really hit on some very good points about plants that can be aggressive. Monarda is in my garden and has to be controlled like your Obedient Plant. What most don't realize is that aggressiveness is based on environmental conditions. And when any plant is not happy, it will contain itself to where it is, or worse, give up and die. There are those that cannot grow Monarda, which is a native that grows most places. I too have Lamium that goes no further than where it was planted and I planted there jut for the result. This was a very good and thorough post.

  36. Good post, Rose. We could spend an entire summer discussing plants like this ... one who is 'in and out' of favor.

    In my own garden (white out/pink not so invasive and easier to control) while in our public gardens (so involved with) ripped out long ago in an ongoing journey (revamping/discarding HUGE perennial gardens) opting for for less maintenance (new garden club members are less inclined to dig in the earth and we older members are having 'skeletal' issues :) An awesome grand 'Punch' view for all seasons while driving by is our goal.

  37. Beautiful photographs, wonderful flowers. I am greeting

  38. Northern Shade, This is why it's so hard to judge sometimes what will be a thug in your own garden--I planted some Campanula this summer, and they all died on me!

    Donna, A very good point about environmental conditions. I've seen Monarda grow with wild abandon, but mine hasn't spread at all. My Lamium wanders a little, but it's easily controlled, and I'm happy to transplant it where nothing else will survive.

    Joey, You make a good point--I don't feel too bad about planting zealous "spreaders" when more experienced Master Gardeners have done the same thing in our display gardens. We're constantly tweaking things there. I hear you about the "skeletal" issues! Once I'm down on my knees planting or weeding, it takes me awhile to get up:)

    Zielona, Thank you, and thank you for making the visit from Poland!

  39. I'm pretty sure the white obedient plants I have are hybrids of some kind. They have no tinge of pink or purple. They also do not spread much. I do have some of the native kind in an enclosed bed at church. I pull handfuls of it out every summer so it can't take over the whole area.

    I have a sweet autumn clematis growing between a sidewalk and our deck. It looks pretty this time of year, with the multitudes of blooms spilling over the top of the deck. we have had a couple volunteers come up in other parts of the yard, but I pulled them.

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