Georgia Native Plant Society’s members have chosen Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica) as our Plant of the Year for 2016. A hummingbird favorite, this vibrant perennial is native to most of the Southeastern US, growing from Florida west to Texas and Oklahoma, and north as far as Illinois and Indiana. Indian pink is one of the approximately 7000 species named by Carl Linneaus in his Species Plantarum (1753), acknowledged as the foundation of modern plant nomenclature. Linneaus chose the genus name, Spigelia, to honor the physician and anatomist Adriaan van den Spiegel (1587-1625), whose book, Isagoges in Rem Herbarium, details the first instructions on how to dry and mount plants as herbarium specimens.
Indian pink is a non-branched, clumping, herbaceous plant. It matures to a height of 12-28 inches. Often a modest grower in the wild, it can produce clumps of up to 75 individual stems when pampered in the garden. Its leaves are emerald green, ovate to lance-shaped, 2-4 inches long, and usually rounded at the base; its roots are yellowish (despite the fact that one of its alternative names is pinkroot), and its fruits are capsules with irregularly angled black seeds.
All-in-all, Indian pink would be quite a mundane herb, were it not for its terminal inflorescences, which are drop-dead gorgeous. Each inflorescence is a curved comb, topped by “teeth” of 2-inch blooms, which open in sequence, beginning nearest the stem. One “tooth” consists of a brilliant scarlet tube that narrows at the outermost end before flaring open to reveal a yellow-green, five-pointed star. A mature plant with a good-sized clump of stems can produce a display that will make even the most jaded flower-lover stop and gape.
Hummingbirds certainly love the show. The flowers are a wonderful source of nectar. In a survey performed by the Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in South Carolina (www.rubythroat.org), Indian pink is on the top-ten list of plants that attract the ruby-throated hummingbird, the single species out of eleven found in Georgia that actually nests within the state.
One would think that such a prize beauty would have been over-collected from the wild long ago. Fortunately, it’s poisonous, which may have kept early collectors at bay. It’s also likely to be what keeps deer from chomping the leaves. Like many a potential poison, Indian pink can also serve as a medicine. The Cherokees used the root to make a “worm tea” for dispelling intestinal parasites. The toxic alkaloid, spigeline, can act a vermifuge in small doses; hence the alternative name, wormgrass.
In the wild, Indian pink is found in moist woodlands and along stream banks. In the garden, it likes fertile, well-drained soil. A fairly easy plant to cultivate, it can be grown in dappled shade to almost full sun (morning sun is preferred). However, if it is placed in a sunny location, the soil must not be permitted to dry out. Not an aggressive spreader, it will expand to form a colony in time when happy. Plants can be propagated by seed, by stem cuttings in the spring, or by division in autumn.
Harvest seed capsules in June or July when they are still green. Place them in a paper bag to dry and release their seeds. No pre-treatment of the seeds is required before planting.
Prepared for the Georgia Native Plant Society by Valerie Boss and Denise Hartline
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Red with yellow throat
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