By Richard and Sybille Stromberg
I manned the Warren County Help Desk on June 4 when a lady brought in a cutting with lots of yellow flowers and wanted to know what it was. She had admired it in her neighbor's garden, but the neighbor did not know what it was either. It was there when she had moved in.
I knew the five, yellow petal flowers with joined stamens in the middle (reminding me of a dish antenna) was a yellow loosestrife (scientific name for the genus is Lysimachia). Lysimachia means release from strife. Greek mythology tells of King Lysimachus pacifying an angry bull by waving a loosestrife plant. Supposedly a sprig of loosestrife between yoked animals keeps them from fighting.
Another species, called purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), is a major invasive alien. The genus name Lythrum derives from a Greek word meaning gore. It was applied to this genus either because of the color of the flower or because of the plant's styptic qualities. It belongs to the loosestrife family (Lythraceae). It is not related to Lysimachia, which is in the primrose family (Primulaceae).
Purple loosestrife is an easy-to-grow garden flower. Its long, flower-filled spikes are loved by flower arrangers. It is not native to America and is considered invasive. In a garden it appears well-behaved, but if any of the thousands of small seeds it produces are moved by wind or water into a wet area, it takes over. No other plants grow in the wetland and animals will abandon it because they have nothing to eat.
Insects keep purple loosestrife under control in its native Eurasia, but in America it has no animal to control it. Experiments are under way to see if non-native insects that seem to feed uniquely on purple loosestrife can control it without threatening native species. Purple loosestrife is the only plant that is banned from sale in Virginia.
The Lysimachia I saw in the Extension office was probably a cultivar. We have several native species growing in our area, but most of them are not as profusely flowered as the example that was brought in. Swamp candles (L. terrestris) flowers in a terminal raceme which can have 50 flowers. The petals of fringed loosestrife (L. ciliata) grow at the top of the plant and from leaf axils. (An axil is the angle between a leaf and the stem from which it grows.)
Whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) is a favorite of mine. It is blooming now. It does not have the profuse number of flowers that sample brought into the Exentsion Office did, but I am intrigued by its structure. Whorled loosestrife has a very structured appearance. It presents layers of leaves whorled evenly around the stem with a flower stalk reaching out from the axil to present a single flower above the tip of the leaf. The structure reminds me of an apartment house with each whorl of leaves resembling a floor. Sometimes a plant will present whorls of three or five leaves, but usually it has four (hence quadrifolia). I think that it presents more symmetry than any plant I know.
Master Gardeners answer gardening questions at Master Gardener Help Desks at their county's Extension Service Office or farmers market. If a Master Gardener is not in the office, Extension staff will pass questions on to them.
Guest columnists Richard and Sybille Stromberg live southwest of Front Royal. Richard is a Master Gardener and both love native plants and hiking. Email them at