One of the real knockout plants in my garden this year has been…this thing.
I bought it at the local botanical garden, under the name “Plowman’s wort.” Okay, fair enough. It’s a native plant, it gets big pink compound flowers, I’m all for it.
I bought it about this time last year, put it in the ground, and of course it immediately went off to dormancy and then I forgot about it, except when I would occasionally trip over the plant tag and go “Oh, right…Plowman’s wort. I remember.”
Sometime last spring, when it occurred to me that the plant had, while my back was turned, grown six feet tall and was wildly visually misplaced, but so damn happy that I hated to move it, I thought that maybe I should read a bit more about my mysterious (and vigorous!) plant.
This was not as easy as I’d hoped.
There’s a European plant called “Ploughmans-wort” which is not this. The -w is critical. And the name “Plowman’s wort” is not particularly common, so I had to dig through various pages on the internet until I found a scientific name and attached other common names to it. My wort was Pluchea camphorata, also known as camphor pluchea. (The originality of the naming there amazes me.)
Having made this discovery, my information about the plant increased…very little.
A member of the Aster family, found across the eastern half of North America, these plants are also known as “camphorweeds” and “fleabanes” and were named after a French naturalist named Noel Antoine Pluche, they are endangered in Ohio and Maryland, and now you know everything I could find on the internet about these plants. Obscure doesn’t even begin to cover it. Nobody sells them, nobody notices them, they mostly show up in databases with the basic information filled out and maybe a couple of dutiful photos taken. Despite being endangered in two states, there seem to be no specific conservation plans. This, right here, may well be the longest article on camphor pluchea easily available on the web once I hit “Publish.”
And this is a shame, because it’s been a fabulous plant in my garden. It shot up six feet, it’s in sort-of well-drained soil, and I have no idea how far the roots go down—have they penetrated the clay? Are they just in the sheet mulch? Who knows? It definitely takes just-about full sun, requires no supplemental watering even in grim and baking weather, and I love it passionately because it is the only tall plant in my garden that really and truly does not require staking. (The giant Joe Pye Weed came to me claiming that it did not need staking. And this is arguably true, because when a perennial is sixteen feet tall, you have moved well beyond staking and into territory defined by girders and flying buttresses. I have never had to use duct tape on a plant before.)
I don’t even know if I can prune it back, or when. I don’t mind it being six feet tall, but it’s in a flower bed of knee-high plants, so it’s a trifle odd at the moment. Theoretically in a few years the Hardy Russian Pomegranate next to it will grow big enough to provide a little visual balance, but at the moment the eye goes “Meadow-beauty, West Texas Sage, thyme, penstemon, penstemon, HELLO GIANT PLUCHEA, prostrate mountain mint, ornamental oregano…” and it is a trifle jarring.
Because I had no information about the plant, I had no idea that the pink flowers would start in late summer and remain small and mostly closed, but that they would last up to frost. While bees aren’t quite sure about this one, pollinating wasps and flies think it’s awesome. I found pollinators on it I didn’t recognize from any other plant. Because I had no information, I had no idea that when I left it standing after frost, the flowers would suddenly explode into powder-puffs.
Also because it is so obscure, I have no idea whether or not all those little seedheads are going to scatter all over my yard and become fifty million six-foot giants, leaving me in a scene reminiscent of Day of the Triffids, hacking them down and screaming “Damnit, I knew a giant plant that didn’t need staking was too good to be true!” (Although I kind of expect that if it were a vile weedy beast, it would be somewhat better documented. People talk about weeds.)
At the moment, however, I am still enamored of Plowman’s wort—it is one of the few plants on the property that can genuinely claim to have “winter interest”—and I want to see if I can find it at the botanical garden again, and perhaps try it on the miserable clay soil off to one side of the property.
I cannot tell you where to get this. I wish I could! I don’t even know how to grow the stuff from seed, so I can’t offer to share—does it require cold stratification? Can I just shove a seed in the ground? Do I need to dance naked in the moonlight around the seeds while chanting? Do the seeds need to pass through the digestive system of the rare North American civet cat to bring it to full flavor? But if you do happen to run into the plant, and you’ve got a spot for a hardy six-foot giant, I’d say it’s definitely worth trying out.
And maybe we can get a little more information about it out there.
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