Hummingbird heaven: Spigelia Marilandica (Indian Pink)


by Tony Avent

illustration by Ippy Patterson

Spigelia marilandica is another of those great plants native to the Southeast that few people have grown or even heard about. In the wild, I usually see Spigelia growing on deeply wooded slopes, where its appearance is interesting but spindly, with a sparse, unimpressive floral show.

In the garden, however, it’s a different matter. When grown in filtered shade or a few hours of sun (especially morning sun), Spigelia marilandica, or Indian Pink, makes a truly stunning perennial. Emerging in spring, it quickly forms a tight 20-inch-tall patch of upright stems with a spray of red, tubular, up-facing, star-shaped flowers. At the tip, they open to reveal a buttery yellow center.

A well-grown clump of Spigelia marilandica can have more than 75 flowering stalks at once. As with most tubular red flowers, Spigelia is a great way to draw hummingbirds to the garden. And it lasts, too: If its mid-spring flowers are removed, it will happily flower again into the summer.

Despite its resilient beauty, Spigelia is a plant in familial flux. Tossed around various plant families by uncaring taxonomists for centuries, it doesn’t quite have a home. For much of its life, Spigelia has lived with the Loganiaceae family (where it currently resides). But because many of its former siblings, like butterfly bushes, have been recently given up to other plant families for adoption, Spigelia is now relegated to attending family reunions with the likes of little-known genera like Antonia, Bonyunia, Mitrasacme, and Usteria.

Spigelia marilandica also has a lovely sister, Spigelia gentianoides, a smaller, but insanely floriferous plant with amazing pink flowers. In another unfortunate twist of fate for these siblings, this pretty sister isn’t plentiful in the wild, so the Feds have declared it an endangered species. This designation and accompanying restrictions ensure it won’t get propagated and sold commercially, which would be the best way for it to remain around. In the meantime, you can see its oversized portrait on the side of U-Haul rental vans that feature its native state, Alabama.

Meantime, Europeans have welcomed Spigelia’s big American brother with open arms. In the early 1990s, we at Plant Delights sold and shipped several dozen plants to the famed Hillier Nurseries in the United Kingdom. Nearly a decade later, I had the occasion to visit Hillier, where I found greenhouses filled with Spigelias propagated from our original shipment, and tales of annual sales that topped two million plants. That’s more than have sold in the history of the United States.

Propagation has proven easy via cuttings, although Spigelia must be rooted early in the season or they won’t form an underground growth bud, and consequently won’t return for the subsequent season. Indian Pink also has medicinal properties, thanks to the alkaloid spigeline, which makes an effective anthelmintic … which is a fancy, polite-company word for a de-wormer effective on roundworms and tapeworms. Spigeline’s dried roots have also been used as a hallucinogen, although death is an unfortunate side affect of improper use.

I truly hope you seek it out this great native perennial, but for its horticultural purposes only.