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figwort, common name for some members of the Scrophulariaceae, a family comprising chiefly herbs and small shrubs and distributed widely over all continents. The family includes a few climbing types and some parasitic and saprophytic forms.
Common Species and Their Uses
Among its many wildflowers are several European species that have been introduced to America and become thoroughly naturalized, e.g., the mulleins (genus Verbascum), the common speedwell (Veronica officinalis), and the butter-and-eggs (Linaria vulgaris). The common mullein (V. thapsus), also called flannel plant and torches, was formerly a favorite multipurpose medicinal plant; it is still occasionally used for domestic remedies, e.g., as a tea for coughs. Its large stalks are said to have been oiled and used for funeral torches in early times. The speedwells, of which several species are native to the United States, are also called veronica, supposedly because of a resemblance of the flower to the relic (see veronica). Culver's root (V. virginica) has been used as a cathartic.
Butter-and-eggs, or yellow toadflax, has small snapdragonlike flowers of yellow and orange and is consequently known also as wild snapdragon. Among the other toadflaxes (genus Linaria) is the well-known American species, blue toadflax. Other indigenous wildflowers of the family include species of beardtongue, or pentstemon (genus Pentstemon); gerardia, or false purple foxglove (Gerardia) [for John Gerard]; painted cup, or Indian paintbrush (Castilleja); and figwort (Scrophularia). The beardtongues, herbs or shrubs, are named for the flower's single sterile stamen that is bearded at its flattened extremity. The roots of the painted cups, chiefly a Western genus, are partially parasitic on the roots of other green plants. Their true flowers are inconspicuous but are commonly enveloped by bright red flowerlike bracts. C. linariaefolia is the state flower of Wyoming. The name Scrophularia derives from the early belief that because the figworts are characterized by deep-throated flowers, they should be medicinally valuable in treating throat ailments (e.g., scrofula).
Many plants of the family are used medicinally; however, only the purple foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) of W Europe is economically important. Its leaves are the source of the drug digitalis, a powerful heart stimulant. The foxglove's tall spire of flowers, typical of many members of the family, makes it popular also as an ornamental. Each blossom, likened to the finger of a glove or to an elongated bell, points downward from the stalk. In England, where it grows wild, the plant has long been associated with fairies—as evidenced by many of its common names, e.g., fairy thimbles.
Numerous other plants of the family also have curious names derived from their unusual flower shapes—e.g., the turtle heads (Chelone) and monkey flowers (Mimulus) of North America and the little red elephants (Pedicularis groenlandica) of arctic and alpine regions. A favorite cultivated plant is the snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus), native to the Mediterranean area. Its showy blossoms, likened to a dragon's snout, display a wide range of colors in the many varieties. Other ornamentals of the family include the Kenilworth ivy (Cymbalaria muralis), introduced into North America, and the calceolaria, or slipperwort (genus Calceolaria), herbs and shrubby plants of South America valued for their profusion of pouch-shaped, often spotted blossoms.