By James Lakin, M.D., Master Gardener
Folklore of the Upper Mississippi maintains that where you see leadplant growing, you’ll find lead underneath. Geologists will smile at this. Other sources say the plant got its name from the fine whitish hairs that sometimes cover the plant and give it the appearance of being dusted with white lead.
Be that as it may, leadplant is a native of the Midwestern prairies and a beautiful addition to any landscape in mid-summer when its purple flower spikes shimmer in perfusion. It is a hardy fellow, not particular about the soil it grows in. It will flourish in loamy, sandy, gravelly or clay soils. It is cold tolerant up to Zone 3, so you can plant it as far north as Duluth. It does prefer full sun, however. If planted in partial shade it tends to sprawl to the light. With adequate illumination it will grow to some 2 to 3 feet tall, although its taproot may go down as far as 15 feet. This makes it an excellent choice to stabilize steep banks or other places in your garden prone to erosion. As you might expect of a plant that has been in the local ecology for a very long time, it is an excellent source of nutrition for pollinators including short and long tonged bees as well as wasps. Many caterpillars depend on the leadplant for nourishment, boosting butterfly production. Grasshoppers are attracted to the plant, providing food for many insect eating birds.
Although leadplant is easy to grow, it is slow to develop. Three years may pass until flowering occurs. Another caveat: the young shoots are quite attractive to herbivores. Rabbits and deer find them irresistible. Therefore, if furry friends are around, it would be wise to enclose young leadplants in a wire cage for the first couple of years. Don’t prune them for several years until they become woody. Once the taproot is established, however they will respond vigorously to aggressive pruning.
Our own leadplants bloomed for the first time last summer, providing a dazzling show for both the gardeners and the bumblebees!