Culver’s Root: Sometimes Newer IS Better

Despite the depredations of the Four Lined Plant Bug, our ‘Fascination’ Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum) has begun blooming pretty nicely at this point in the year.


I really like the bloom color of this cultivar, which is a soft lavender-blue. Although in many places you’ll see ‘Fascination’ described as pink, which is confusing. The indirect light in the photo above seems to make the flowers look even more blue.

DSC_0467But they still look blue to me, and not at all pink, in the picture above with its bright light. In any case, I also like this plant’s pointy flower spikes, its upright habit, and it’s whorls of deep green, lance-shaped leaves. It grows about 4 feet tall in our garden.

culvers straight p moon
Straight species Culver’s Root. Photo from Prairie Moon Nursery.

The straight species has white flowers. I’m not against white flowers, but it’s just not the color I want in this spot. Call me superficial, go ahead.

In most instances, I do prefer to grow the straight species. One example: Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). This species has many cultivars, and I dislike pretty much all of them.

DSC_0469A debate is going on over whether or not cultivars of native plants are as beneficial to wildlife as straight native species. There isn’t much scientific evidence either way, but research is being done at the Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware.

According to an article on the blog of the National Wildlife Federation, double-flowered cultivars can be almost useless to bees and other pollinators. Purple-leaved cultivars are less attractive to caterpillars, but variegated leaves can be more attractive. Some cultivar traits, such as a more upright or compact habit, seem to make no difference at all.

2014-09-28 15.39.51 new england aster with metallic green bee
 Straight species New England Aster with Metallic Green Bee. 

Research at the University of Vermont indicates found that bees utilize the straight species New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) far more than some popular cultivars. On the other hand, cultivars and straight species of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) were equally appealing to bees.

Based on my own observations, the lavender flowers of ‘Fascination’ are highly popular with pollinators. Straight species native plants should be part of the mix for American home gardeners (and they should be far more available at garden centers), but it is unrealistic and unnecessary to go without cultivars.



34 Comments on “Culver’s Root: Sometimes Newer IS Better

  1. It had not occurred to me that cultivators are not attractive to bees and other pollinators. We have an Easter daisy, which has been growing in the garden like a weed for years, and is alive with bees every year..(.it looks very similar to your New England Aster) and on the strength of the National Wildlife research, I realise how important it is to keep it going.

  2. You have such beautiful gardens. I’m curious about the sun exposure. How many hours of sun do your gardens get?

  3. I certainly have a mix of straight species of plants and cultivars and I am not going to apologize for it. I have lots of bees and bugs. We are all happy and healthy here. I agree there should be more natives available at local nurseries. I would have more.

  4. Perhaps we should always plant one native for every cultivar, until we have more research. I like my white Culvers Root and your blue one.

  5. So much to think about! I would never call you superficial 😉

  6. I don’t think I have ever seen Culver’s root in the nursery. Quite pretty. My coneflower cultivars never do well so I stopped buying them.

  7. My experience with coneflower cultivars is negative – they are not very hardy whereas the non-cultivars are practically indestructible. I appreciate how informative your posts are – gives me lots of ideas for my own yard.

  8. I’m not a big fan of most coneflower varieties either. They all decline and wimp out on me. The straight species is much more robust. Your blue Veronicastrum is wonderful. We saw a few of this plant during the Fling, but most had rather measly flowers, none as big or as bright as yours.

  9. What a fine specimen of Fascination you have. I hope mine (bought last year) grows as well as yours! You make some very interesting points about pollinators and cultivars, but hopefully this colour variation isn’t critical to it’s attraction. Bees love it here.

  10. Two of us were out this morning tending the herb garden that is our civic project and we discussed Culver’s root. Ours are white. But, seeing your cultivar, I think I need one of those as well!

  11. Beautiful! I’m looking forward to planning my shade garden over the winter, and I will definitely include Culver’s Root. I just planted a few native cultivars in my sunny foundation garden along with some straight species, but I won’t know for a few more years whether the cultivars are as favored by the pollinators. I certainly hope so!

    I actually just read on a plant tag at a native plant nursery that threadleaf tickseed ‘moonbeam,’ a very popular cultivar, actually has sterile flowers, so the nursery recommends a different variety for a native planting. Just goes to show you really have to do your research! I wish it was easier to get all of this information at regular nurseries.

  12. It looks blue to me too but I’m color blind so I’m not the one to ask.
    I see the white ones growing wild alongside the roads but I’m never sure if they really are wild or if they’ve escaped.

  13. What a great plant. I’m not familiar with it, but intend to be. It’s just too pretty to pass up. Not sure what the cultivar is for my cone flowers grown from seed. I need to look. Very informative. Thanks!

  14. I love Culver’s Root and have been trying to figure out where I can fit one in. Yours is lovely. Fascinating how some cultivars are not attractive to pollinators. It makes sense. The straight species would have evolved to attract the pollinators. Can’t mess with mother nature. On that note, on someone’s recommendation, I did buy an Echinacea cultivar this year. Oh well, I’ll see how it goes.

  15. You’re right Jason bees love these plants. I have Veronicastrum and monarda and love watching how hard bees work.

  16. I failed with Culver’s root once. My fault – I planted it in springtime in a hot, sunny, windy, dry area — pretty much the opposite of what it would like.

    I’m going to try again though. It’s a gorgeous plant and now I have more partially shaded area where I think it would be happier. At least I hope so!

    Thanks for sharing the photos from your garden. Very inspirational!

  17. Well thank you very much for identifying one of our mystery plants in our “new” house garden. Kinda cool with the “spoonbill” tip. We have the purple variety.

  18. Jason, your ‘Fascination’ culver root looks amazing. I grew it here but it was a tepid lavender that proved too weak to survive the garden. Perhaps I’ll try again with a reliable nursery source and hope for better results. Regarding the species/cultivar debate, Doug Tallamy has some convincing evidence of the preference of pollinators for species – mostly I think because of the single petals/non-doubling with its easier access to pollen. Like you, I mix both hybrids and species for a balanced garden that both gardeners pollinators find appealing.

  19. Culvert’s root was spotted quite a few times in Washington and I recall that one of the bloggers asked me what it was. I had no idea, of course – too bad you weren’t standing beside her instead of me!

  20. I bought ‘Fascination’ Culver’s Root for my blue-and-gold garden a few years ago, but there must have been a mix-up or something as the blooms were all white. It is still very pretty, though, and the bees love it. I have several cultivars of Purple Coneflower. Honestly I can’t even tell them apart as most of them look about the same. That is too bad if some cultivars have breeded out the attraction for pollinators. We like our bees and butterflies here!

  21. Fascination is gorgeous, right up my street! As Laura says, so much to think about. I always go by my personal observations, if a plant is swarming with pollinators, it

  22. Your veronicastrum is a beauty! In New England, the Wild Seed Project is encouraging people to grow straight species which are open pollinated rather than cloned cultivars in order to increase the genetic diversity in our garden plants.

    • Genetic diversity is a good argument for straight species, though I still prefer a mix of straight species and cultivars.

  23. I also like Veronicastrum. But – again – unfortunately this plant doesn’t seem to be happy with our garden soil.
    What really grows in our garden are roses and peonies.

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