Most people know “loosestrife” because of the veritable pestilence upon the landscape that is purple loosestrife and its relatively benign (albeit not harmless) distant relative yellow loosestrife, a deer-resistant (and therefore popular) denizen of perennial beds.
But what about that name? It has a potentially calamitous etymology if it has anything to do with the idea of “loosing strife upon the land.” But the real story is less exciting and a bit more pointy-headed.
The common name is given to members of two genera Lythrum and Lysimachia. Until the advent of molecular genetics both were thought to be members of the family Primulaceae (primroses), but recent evidence shows that Lysimachia should be put in the family Myrsinaceae and Lythrum in the family Lythraceae.
The common is name is a literal translation from the Greek lysimachia, which was the name for the flower in the Classical world. Lysis means ‘loose’ or ‘break apart,’ and mache means ‘to fight.’ What does this have to do with the properties of the plant? As it turns out: nothing.
In fact, according to Dioscorides and Pliny, the plant was named for King Lysimachos, who was apparently something of an herbalist and was the first to describe the curative properties of the herb. Lysimachos was one of the bodyguards of Alexander the Great, and after the young emperor’s death in 323 B.C.E. he became the ruler of Thrace, Asia Minor (Turkey) and Macedon.
The plant most consistently referred to as yellow loosestrife is Lysimachia vulgaris. The leaves are whorled on this species, and the flowers are arranged in loose spikes at the top of the stem. This species is regarded as being invasive in the United States, where it is found along wetter roadsides.
Lysimachia punctata is called either yellow or spotted loosestrife and is the most commonly seen member of the genus in perennial beds. Its shorter stemmed leaves are arranged in whorls like those of L. vulgaris, but unlike L. vulgaris, the flowers are arranged in whorls just above the leaf whorls. The overall effect is one of alternately circles of green and bright yellow climbing up the stem. This plant is not regarded as being nearly as invasive as L. vulgaris.
While most Lysimachia species are native to Europea and Asia, a few are native to North America, including the whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia), which is found in woodlands from Georgia to Hudson Bay east of the Mississippi River. Lysimachia fraseri (Fraser’s yellow loosestrife) is a rare denizen of the southeastern United States. Its numbers have been reduced by suppression of natural wildfires; it is usually sterile when it grows in excessive shade.
But the most notorious loosestrife is Lythrum salicaria or purple loosestrife, which spreads in clonal mats, crowding out native species, especially cattails in wetland settings. For several years volunteer groups were physically removing these plants from wildlife preserves and refuges because it was dominating the ecosystems to the extent that the food web was affected. Native insects adapted to eating and breeding on cattails and other species lost their habitat, sending a cascading wave of disruption through the community.
Integrated pest management (IPM) programs are the most ecologically sophisticated way to control invasive species. They will not eliminate the invader, but will (if successful) bring the numbers under control. In 1992 the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the release of Galerucella spp. beetles to make an inroad into the infestation of purple loosestrife populations in North America. After the beetles are introduced, they begin to feed on the loosestrife, which becomes stunted and defoliated, allowing other plants to grow around it. However, it takes five to 10 years for sufficient numbers of beetles to build up and make a serious dent in the loosestrife populations.
For obvious reasons it is unwise to use either purple or yellow (L. vulgaris) in flower arrangements, however attractive both spiked inflorescences may be. On the other hand, the gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides) is frequently used in add interesting geometry to an arrangement. The white spike blooms from the base of the spike toward the tip, giving it a crooked appearance. This plant can also be somewhat invasive.