FIGWORT FAMILY - ScrophulariaceaŽ: Wood Betony; Lousewort; Beefsteak Plant; High Heal-all
Flowers--Greenish yellow and purplish red, in a short, dense spike. Calyx oblique, tubular, cleft on lower side, and with 2 or 3 scallops on upper; corolla about 3/4 in. long, 2-lipped, the upper lip arched, concave, the lower 3-lobed; 4 stamens in pairs; 1 pistil. Stems: Clustered, simple, hairy, 6 to 18 in. high. Leaves: Mostly tufted, oblong lance-shaped in outline, and pinnately lobed.
Preferred Habitat--Dry, open woods and thickets.
Distribution--Nova Scotia to Florida, westward to Manitoba, Colorado, and Kansas.
When the Italians wish to extol some one they say, "He has more virtues than betony," alluding, of course, to the European species, Betonica officinalis, a plant that was worn about the neck and cultivated in cemeteries during the Middle Ages as a charm against evil spirits; and prepared into plasters, ointments, syrups, and oils, was supposed to cure every ill that flesh is heir to. Our commonest American species fulfils its mission in beautifying roadside banks, and dry open woods and copses with thick, short spikes of bright flowers, that rise above large rosettes of coarse, hairy, fern-like foliage. At first, these flowers, beloved of bumblebees, are all greenish yellow; but as the spike lengthens with increased bloom, the arched, upper lip of the blossom becomes dark purplish red, the lower one remains pale yellow, and the throat turns reddish, while some of the beefsteak color often creeps into stems and leaves as well.
Farmers once believed that after their sheep fed on the foliage of this group of plants a skin disease, produced by a certain tiny louse (pediculus), would attack them--hence our innocent betony's repellent name.