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Plant Profiles:
Scrophularia auriculata 'Variegata'


Drawing by Rene Eisenbart

Scrophularia Auriculata 'Variagata'

Cough your area

Water figwort

Showy-leaved, late-spring-blooming perennial

Sun to part shade; damp soil


If you haven't deduced it already, the key is to give it wet feet


I really want you to remember this plant, but I'm not sure its history is the reason why. My dilemma is one of indelicacy, hard to avoid in the case of figwort, whose healing properties -- as used in the Middle Ages -- made it the darling of beleaguered hemorrhoid sufferers.

And that was only its secondary claim to fame. Its first had to do with "the King's evil" - the tubercular disease scrofula - the supposed cure of which earned this genus its decidedly unromantic name.

So is this a good time to tell you about Scrophularia's cordovan-brown flowers, which a fellow garden writer likened to "rodent's eyes"?

Ah, but it's all uphill from here. S. auriculata 'Variegata' - a bicolored form of dubious medicinal value - is one of the choicest variegated-foliage plants the perennial world has to offer. Extremely bright and full of optomism, with conspicuously large and crinkled leaves, it has a rigid upright habit that makes it a beacon in the garden, irresistible to all who visit.

A member of the family Scrophulariaceae, related to monkey flower, snapdragon, and penstemon, the variegated water figwort is not actually aquatic, but it's happiest with damp toes. It then stands about three feet high, dressed in scrumptious, showy leaves, each painted with an irregular apple-green island floating in a broad vanilla sea. Its vertical stems are ridged and squared. Its flowers tower another foot above the plant, beady-eyed, maybe, but still oddball and amusing, if only second best to the foliage.

S. auriculata 'Variegata' is a real shot in the arm among perennials and does wonders to enliven a monochromatic planting of medium-sized shrubs. Culturally, it's pretty straightforward, provided you've got soaker hoses or drip irrigation to keep it from drying out. Not that drought will kill it - this is one tough scroph - but what could be lush will begin to look starved, and its rich vanilla edges will scorch.

If you happen to suffer a severe need for variegation, consider this plant the poor man's Symphytum x uplandicum 'Variegatum'. The figwort is infinitely more available and far less expensive than the variegated Russian comfrey and provides a comparable (if less prestigious) cure.

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.