Friday, March 10, 2017

1887 - Simpson Honey-plant: #1 of Root's Bee Plants

Over the centuries men and women have noted the plants that attracted their honeybees
and shared that knowledge.  Most of us do not have the acreage to plant enough of a favored specie to support our hives, but it is still fascinating to grow suggested  "honey plants" and see if the claims are true.  

The idea of planting fields to support bees shows up often in journals around the 1880's with people arguing that we plan pastures for our other domesticated animals, why not the bees.  The idea was not new then, but my thought is the increased business of beekeeping which was feeding the growing cities began to drive beekeepers towards any strategy that could increase or, at least, insure the honey flow. A. I. Root was certainly central to the business on many levels.

It sounds like fun to use Root as the source of a list, then find interesting testimonials to back him up...or not. 

To start, the much lauded Simpson Honey-plant.  A previous post covers a later discussion (1898) of the practicality of its use.  

Prairie Moon Nursery has seeds and plants of
the Simpson Honey-plant

The following is text from A.I. Root's 1887 and 1888 catalogs' Bee Plant section, with Root as the writer.  

"I have for years had dreams of a honey farm, with acres of flowers of different colors, blooming at different seasons, and keeping the bees away from the stores and groceries when we have a dry spell in the fall. 
The dream has been partially realized with the Simpson honey-plant, Mollie O. Large's spider plant, and the seven-top turnip, and I am pretty well satisfied it will pay to cultivate these for honey alone. "

From copies of the The ABC of Bee Culture, an A. I. Root book, this description of the plant:
Fig-wort, or Simpson Honey Plant(1887 and 1888)
This is a queer tall weed that grows In fields and woods, and it bears little cups full of honey. It has produced so much honey under cultivation on our honey farm during the past two years, that I am much inclined to place it at the head of the list of honey-plants. 
It bears honey all the day long from July to October. Very hardy: blooms first year, and after that shoots up from the root every year, but needs planting anew, about every three years. The seed sometimes lies in the ground many months before germinating. 
If sprinkled on the tub of damp leaf-mold, packed hard in a box, and rolled hard, being kept dark and damp in a warm place, they will sprout in a week or two. Then give all the light and air possible, but not too much water. Price of seed, from cultivated plants, 20c per oz., $2.00 per lb. If by mail, 18c per lb. extra, for postage.

It was a letter from James A. Simpson to A. I. Root which started the first substantial movement for planting for bee pasture in this country. Simpson described what he regarded as the coming honey plant, but he did not even know its name.  For this reason it was described as "Simpson's Honey-plant".  

It is obvious why the plant had beekeepers pricking up their ears when Simpson described the plant!
" It is a large coarse grower from 4 to 8 feet in height, coarse leaf, and branching top covered with innumerable little balls about that size of No. 1 shot. When in bloom there is just one little flower leaf on each ball which is dark purple, or violet at the outer point and lighter as it approaches the seed ball. The ball has an opening in it at the base of the leaf. The ball is hollow. It is seldom seen in the forenoon without honey shining in it. Take a branch off and turn it down with a sharp shake and the honey will fall in drops. It commences to bloom about the 15th of July and remains until frost. Bees frequent it from morning till night. The honey is a little dark, but of very good quality. I think it would be best to sow in seed bed and transplant."

1877, Gleanings in Bee Culture

This illustration shows the square stem well.

Webster Thomas, editor of the The Bee-keepers' Instructor: A Monthly Journal Devoted to the Science of Bee-keeping in All Its Branches, writes, in 1881:
"We have a small patch of the Simpson honey plant on which the bees have been busy for a month past. This plant, unless the weather is very dry, secretes honey during the entire day. It would certainly pay well to cultivate it largely, as it bridges over the gap between the summer and fall flow of honey, and continues on until killed by frosts. 
Let those who have the land to spare and time to cultivate it, try the experiment and see if it does not pay well."

Once more people heard of Simpson's plant the specie name became known, with Scrophularia nodosa var. marylandica or Scrophularia marilandica being most used.  I believe the plants in the New World do not have the nodules on the root.

King's Cure-all as a Honey-Plant.
I send you some pods of seed of a good honey plant. What is its botanical name? We call it "King's cure-all".   It blooms a little on a single stalk, the first year; the next year it throws out branches, growing 6 or 8 feet high, and blooms about the middle of July, and continues blooming till frost. The flower is a small cup with a lid over it, keeping out the sun and rain. The bees work on it early and late. S. P. Sowers.Dunlap, Kansas.   ("early and late" - June through September says a plant site)
[The plant seems to be Scrophularia nodosa (" Figwort," Simpson's Honey Plant). The fruit capsules are more densely produced than is common with the above species, but it cannot be far different, and there is no near relative known to me to which it may be referred. It is, probably, the variety known as Marilandica.—T. J. Burrill.]

1883 - American Bee Journal

I found that Scrophula was what tuberculosis was called, and this plant was used to treat it, and was so named.  Also tuberculosis was called the King's Evil, which made the above writer's name for it make sense...except I think he was mistaken.  Evening Primrose, another common weed, is called by many King's Cure-all.       
Our plant has these other common names: Carpenter's-square, Rose-noble, Scrofula Plant, Square Stalk, Stinking Christopher and Throatwort.  

I read it tastes and smells nasty if you make it into a medicine. Also,  it likes a moist soil and grows in woods and hedges - in England.  A contemporary site somewhere had a testimonial that it grows and overwinters in Minnesota and grew quite large!

LINK: A nice discussion of the usefulness of Simpson's Honey-plant which took place during the 6th Annual Meeting of the Indiana Bee Keepers Association in 1885.  Several men were very impressed with it as a useful bee pasture plant.

Annual Report of the Indiana State Board of Agriculture

1886, The Bee-hive

I am puzzled with the result of my experiment with the Simpson's honey plant. I have a few plants in bloom near my bee stands. I can see the nectar in the flower and squeeze it out in great, sweet, honey-tasting drops, but I have never been able to see a bee work on it, while they will suck away at a few nearly dried up Catnip and Mignonette flowers at the foot of these plants, within two feet of them. 
Why do they not work on the Simpson? The bees were very busy on Catnip and Motherwort this summer. These plants when once established will take care of themselves for years, as they are hardy, drought proof perennial plants, and are worthy of extensive planting. I shall continue my experiments with the Simpson honey plant as well as with others.
S. B. Kokanour, Manhattan, Kansas.

1881 - Daniel Kepler, Napoleon, Ohio

If you look up Simpson's Honey-plant you will find interest in it continues far into the 20th and even the 21st century for bee pasturage.  Planting specifically for honeybees lost traction as far as I can tell, as it was not seen as paying for the labor, the seeds or plants and the loss of the land which could be planted to something that paid.   Encouraging good bee plants in areas not useful for other crops or animal pasture continues.

I had to include this manuscript from 1500-ish!
What a wonderful illustration of Scrophularia nodosa.
 Link about it.