Herb to Know: Bistort

Get acquainted with unusual, versatile plants.

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Bistort brings color to the garden but can also be useful medicinally and in cooking.

Jerry Pavia

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Genus: Polygonum bistorta ‘Superbum’ (also sold as ‘Superba’)

• Hardy to Zone 3

An Old World herb, bistort has Latin and common names based on the plant’s peculiar, twice-twisted rhizomatous roots. These give rise to a mound of huge, puckered and tapering foliage that diminishes in size as it ascends slender, stiff-jointed stems. The foliage is attractive all season and in the fall turns burnished red, but the plant’s real draw is its prolific production of tightly packed tiny pink flowers in dense 3-inch spikes in early summer (repeat bloom in fall is possible, too). The massed flower heads with their protruding stamens look like fluffy pokers. A mature plant in bloom is a showstopping 2 to 3 feet tall and nearly as wide.

Plants are easily established from rhizomes in early spring or early fall in moisture-retentive soil, in sun or light shade. Where summers are very hot, some shade will prolong bloom, which should last a month or more. One of bistort’s most endearing traits for a gardener afflicted with the “move-its” is its ability to resettle comfortably after transplanting, at almost any state of its growth. It does not mind wet feet, so you can plant this admirable herb even in a bog.

Bistort owes its history of curative powers to its astringent tannin-packed roots, once used to tan leather. Many bistort-root preparations also were used to dry up mouth and gum sores and to cure diarrhea. The young shoots were eaten as a vegetable, especially in Bistort Pudding, a traditional dish served as a spring restorative at Easter.

I like to cut the tall, strong stems for bouquets, fresh and dried. The sweetly hawthorn-scented flower heads can be dried and added to potpourri.