fresh flower


This flexible flower is a great late-summer accent.

by Steven W. Brown, AIFD

Physostegia virginiana
obedient plant, false dragonhead

1 a formal line. Pronounced “fi-so-STEE-jee-uh,” this perennial blossom presents a vertical spike of tubular florets arranged in rows along the stem. Each floret has a two-lobed upper lip and a spotted, three-lobed lower lip. They are usually unbranched but may have one or two forks near the top of the stem. The pretty yellow-green foliage is usually from 1.5 to 5 inches long and is sharply toothed.

2 obedience training. If a Physostegia flower is shaped into a new position, it will retain its new shape. This unique behavior accounts for the common name “obedient plant.” Another common name, “false dragonhead,” refers to the flower’s resemblance to a snapdragon.

3 the mint family. Physostegia is a member of the Lamiaceae, or Labiatae, (mint) family. Close relatives include Salvia, Coleus, Ajuga, mint and thyme. The genus name comes from the Greek root “physa” (bladder) and “stege” (covering). The name was given because the calyx becomes inflated and covers the fruit as the seed pods develop.

4 living in america. Physostegia is native to eastern North America, on prairies and stream banks from Canada to Florida. It is most available from June through November from domestic and Dutch growers. The genus has about 15 species, available in red-violet, pink, lavender or white.

5 buying right. When selecting Physostegias, make sure there are no shedding florets or signs of rot or mold on the flowers or stems. Look for bunches that have at least one-third of the florets opened. If flowers are too tight, they may not open completely.

6 processing is important. Unpack these flowers immediately upon arrival in your shop. Remove the foliage that would be submerged under water in vases, and cut at least 1 inch off the bottom of each stem. Dip or place the stems into a hydration solution, then place the stems into a properly prepared floral food solution. Note: These flowers are highly sensitive to ethylene, so check with your supplier to ensure they have been treated with an anti-ethylene product.

7 cool and groovy. Allow Physostegia stems to take up water for at least two hours in a floral cooler at 34 F to 36 F before selling or designing with them. Provide good air circulation and high humidity.

8 freshen the water. Physostegias will benefit from having their stems recut and the flower food solution changed every other day. Advise customers of this, and provide them with additional flower food packets.

9 lasting value. If Physostegias are handled properly, they will last for approximately seven to 14 days. Advise customers to display them in areas away from direct sun and other sources of heat.

10 designers’ delight. The small, linear stems of Physostegias make them easy to arrange in a variety of designs. They are great for use in hospital designs, centerpieces and other types of arrangements with a formal garden style. In addition to gardeny, vegetative and botanical compositions, Physostegias are ideal choices for traditional Western straight-line line-mass designs as well as the architectural European parallel systems and new-convention arrangement styles.

Steven W. Brown, AIFD, is a professor and department chair of horticulture and floristry at City College of San Francisco with 27 years of consulting and educational experience in the floral industry. You may contact him by e-mail at or by phone at (415) 239-3140.

Thanks to Roy Borodkin of Brannan Street Wholesale, San Francisco Flower Market, San Francisco, Calif., for contributing information.

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