Wild Flowers of Pittsburgh

Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana)

Also known as False Dragonhead, referring to its resemblance to a snapdragon. The name “Obedient Plant” describes a property that fascinates children, and any adults who are not too jaded to admit to being fascinated. If you push one of the individual flowers to the left or right, it will stay in that position. You can arrange all the flowers artistically on the stem, and they will stay right where you put them. You might almost think the plant had been specially bred by lazy florists. This plant was part of a large patch blooming in late July in a wet depression in Schenley Park.

Gray describes the genus and the species:

PHYSOSTEGIA Benth. FALSE DRAGON HEAD. Calyx obscurely 10-nerved, short-tubular or bell-shaped, more or less enlarged and slightly inflated in fruit. Corolla funnel-form, with a much inflated throat, 2-lipped; upper lip erect, nearly entire; the lower 3-parted, spreading, small, its middle lobe larger, broad and rounded, notched. — Smooth perennials, with upright wand-like stems, and sessile lanceolate or oblong mostly serrate leaves. Flowers large and showy, rose or flesh-color variegated with purple, opposite, crowded in simple or panicled terminal leafless spikes. (Name from physa, a bladder, and stege, a covering, in allusion to the calyx, which is at length somewhat inflated.)

• Stem conspicuously leafy up to the inflorescence.

P. virginiàna (L.) Benth. Stem 0.6-1.3 m. high, terminated by asimple virgate spike or several panicled spikes ; leaves thickish, mostly sharply serrate; calyx tubular-campanulate, its teeth half the length of the tube, acuminate, at length acerosetipped; corolla 1.8-2.3 cm. long. — Wet grounds, from w. Que. westw. and southw.; frequently escaped from cultivation in e. N. E. June-Sept.

In her Guide to the Wild Flowers (1899), Alice Lounsberry gives us this description:

Flowers: growing closely in a dense spike on axillary flower-stalks. Calyx ; bell-shaped, of five-toothed sepals. Corolla: funnel-form; inflated; two-lipped, the upper lip arched and broad; the lower one of three spreading lobes, the centre lobe pale and dotted with a deep colour. Stamens: four; in pairs. Pistil: one; style two-lobed. Leaves: opposite; lanceolate; serrated. Stem: square; one to four feet high; slightly branched.

When a little fish comes to the surface of the water and opens his mouth his expression is not unlike that of these flowers. They have, however, none of the darting, evasive tendencies of the fish. The flower is most docile. Strangely enough, it appears to be without any elasticity, and will remain in exactly the position in which it is placed for an indefinite time. From this characteristic the plant quite carries off the palm of obedience among the flowers.

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