Exotic and stunning, like a fuchsia with upright flowers, Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica), is a modestly sized perennial of wooded areas that creates quite an effect and yet few gardeners have ever heard about it. It’s simply not a household name. Who even knows its family, the Loganiaceae? However, it’s an easy-to-grow plant that is very shade-tolerant (no kidding!) and very hardy (zones 3 or 4 to 9) to boot. I think it deserves to be much better known and much more widely grown.
Try it and you’ll understand why.
What you won’t understand is why this plant is called Indian pink or even woodland pinkroot (an alternate common name)! After all, there is nothing pink about this plant. Its flowers are red and yellow, its leaves and stems are green and its roots are yellow. Where is the pink? However, many plants in the mostly tropical genus Spigelia do have roots that are pink and they gained the common name pinkroot which our plant inherited through its family ties.
Personally, I just call this plant spigelia or, if I have to differentiate it from some other Spigelia species (and that almost never happens!), Maryland spigelia. I just can’t see calling a plant that has nothing pink about it Indian pink or pinkroot!
Understory Plant With Showy Flowers
Indian pink (sorry, spigelia) grows in a dense clump about 12 to 24 inches (30–60 cm) in height and 14 to 24 inches (40–60 cm) in diameter. The upright stems appear thin, but are actually very sturdy. They bear opposite ovate to lanceolate leaves, dark green and shiny. There is no petiole and the leaves wrap slightly around the stem at their base.
It’s when the plant starts to bloom that it becomes so impressive. At the tip of the stem a series of 2 to 12 flower buds forms, all on the same side, aligned in single file. They’re green at first, gradually lengthening and swelling towards the top, like an upside-down bowling pin or wine battle, then they turn a rich, intense, eye-catching red. But that’s only the start. Suddenly, the tip of the flower bud bursts open to reveal a star …of pale yellow to greenish yellow! The contrast between red tube and the yellow flower is astonishing!
Spigelia blooms from early to mid-summer, usually for a good four to six weeks. Then the plant becomes a simple foliage plant for the rest of the summer. It loses its leaves in the fall then resprouts the following spring to start a new season of growth and bloom.
What It Wants
Maryland spigelia is a plant of the woodland, native to the southeastern United States including, of course, Maryland. It does best in a milieu that resembles its natural environment: semi-shade to shade in a slightly moist, slightly acid soil rich in organic matter with plenty of forest litter.
That said, you don’t have to actually grow it in a forest. Spigelia is very adaptable and would be at home—and highly attractive!—in any flower bed. It can easily tolerate full sun, as long as its soil remains at least somewhat moist, and it’s remarkably vigorous in shade. Any well-drained soil will do, but soil rich in organic matter is preferable. To compensate for the lack of forest litter (so rare in flower beds!), cover its root zone with a good organic mulch.
Do be aware, though, that spigelia is not very drought resistant: water it regularly during dry spells.
This is where things get complicated … and explains why the plant is not more common in garden centers. It’s because it’s slow to multiply.
Although when you buy a spigelia, it will probably flower beautifully the first year, it certainly takes its time increasing in size and it can take 7 to 10 years before you feel it’s grown enough to be divided. Sure, the clump does widen over time …but ever so slowly!
Of course, you can produce more plants from seed …but they have to be fresh to germinate well or else stored cool. Letting them dry out will kill them. That’s why few seed companies offer spigelia seed.
You can, however, harvest the seeds from your own plants. But beware, when the seed capsules are ripe, they open explosively, throwing the seeds hither and yon. So, to avoid losing them, place a small bag of tissue around faded flowers to capture the seeds as they mature.
When you do sow them, they’ll need a 2 to 3 month cold treatment followed by warmer conditions in order to germinate well. Spigelias usually start bloom at about 3 years of age.
Another possibility is to simply naturalize a few spigelia plants in wooded area and let them self-sow, something they do modestly but surely. When you see young plants with the same leaves as adults, you can dig them up and transplant them wherever you want.
A Spectacular Pollinator
Maryland spigelia is renowned for its ability to attract hummingbirds. Operation Rubythroat, an international research center helping to conserve the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), has put spigelia on its list of the 10 best plants to attract hummingbirds. And apparently hummingbirds are its exclusive pollinator: no insects are known to pollinate its blooms.
I hate bringing this up, but yes, Maryland spigelia is poisonous. All spigelias are. In fact, the Loganiaceae family is fame for its poisonous plants, including the strychnine tree (Strychnos nux-vomica), the plant from which strychnine, dear to Agatha Christie, is derived. Now, Maryland spigelia is nowhere near as toxic as its cousin, but it remains a poisonous plant. You can handle it … just don’t eat it.
Let’s, however, put things into perspective: in your immediate environment, about 40 to 60% of the plants are poisonous or have poisonous parts. That even includes many edible plants (apples, cherries, potatoes, etc.). Also, cases of poisoning due to plants are extremely rare (household cleaning products and medications are far, far more dangerous). Still, it’s better to be aware of the “problem”.
Of course, almost every poisonous plant also has medicinal uses and such is the case with spigelia. Native Americans used to employ a root extraction as a dewormer.
Of course, toxicity can also have its advantages for the gardener: spigelia seems resistant to most insects and diseases and deer simply won’t touch it … or will quickly stop after a nibble or two.
Where to Find It?
Maryland spigelia is not the most common perennial, but nor is it so obscure a plant you won’t be able to find it. It’s well enough known that nurseries that specialize in perennials almost certainly offer it and even larger garden centers do carry it, at least occasionally. If you can’t find it locally, there are many mail order nurseries that sell it. Just google the botanical name, Spigelia marylandica, and the word “catalog” and you’ll see.
A beautiful shade perennial just waiting to be discovered: why not try the Maryland spigelia this summer?