The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc.

Plants of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States


Common Name
Virginia Waterleaf (Eastern Waterleaf)


Scientific Name
Hydrophyllum virginianum L.


Plant Family
Borage (Boraginaceae)

Garden Location
Woodland & Upland


Prime Season
Spring to Early Summer Flowering



Virginia Waterleaf is a native erect perennial forb growing 6 to 18 inches tall on stems that infrequently branch. Stems are rather weak, usually green, sometimes reddish-green (especially at the leaf nodes and base) and sometimes with fine hair.

The leaves are alternate, stalked and large - often up to 6 inches long - oval to triangular in outline and pinnately divided into 3 to 7 lobes, the lobes frequently separated into a base segment and a tip segment. Lobe margins are coarsely toothed. Lower leaves will have more segments than upper leaves. In some cases the leaves may look mottled.

The inflorescence is a branched dense hairy cyme of 8 to 20 stalked flowers held on a long stalk above the leaves.

The flowers are 5-part with a green hairy calyx that is very short and has five long pointed teeth and a corolla of five lobes (petals) that are white to lavender shaded, but do not spread open much. The five stamens and the 2-lobed style protrude from the corolla a considerable amount. Stamens alternate with the corolla lobes, have hairy whitish filaments and light purplish-brown anthers.

Seed: Fertile mature flowers produce a rounded seed capsule containing 2 to 4 brown dry seeds (four more frequently than 2 or 3). Seeds are an irregular oval shape with a wrinkled surface.


Habitat: Virginia Waterleaf is found extensively in the Woodland and Upland Garden at Eloise Butler. The roots are rhizomatous with a crown, fleshy and tough to weed out and the plant easily fills in any open space. The plant is an aggressive spreader from its many seeds and rhizomatous roots. Occasionally control measures must be applied. Removing the flower clusters before it goes to seed will at least limit the spread. It grows in the understory of open woods in rich moist soils and partial sun. The leaves die back by late summer.

Names: The genus Hydrophyllum is from two Greek words - hydor for 'water' and phyllon for 'leaf', applied because the stems and leaves of the original species of this genus were watery - not due to the spots on the leaves. The species virginianum refers to 'of the state of Virginia' where first collected. The author name for the plant classification of 1753 - 'L.' is for Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. In earlier times this genus was in the Waterleaf (Hydrophyllaceae) family but has now been reclassified into the Boraginaceae.

Comparisons: The only other Waterleaf found in the state, Great Waterleaf, Hydrophyllum appendiculatum, has rounded leaves without the deep cut lobes and flowers with spreading petals where the stamens are not as conspicuously exserted.

See bottom of page for notes on the Garden's planting history, distribution in Minnesota and North America, lore and other references.

Virginia Waterleaf Large base leaf

Above: Leaves vary in configuration. Some will have mottled marking on the upper surface as shown above. Note the reddish color at the leaf nodes. The inflorescence is a stout stalked cyme held above the leaves.

Below: 1st photo - The green hairy calyx has five long-fingered lobes. 2nd photo - The filaments of the stamens have fine long hairs, anthers are purplish brown. The two lobes of the style are more clearly shown in the larger photo below.

sepals flower closeup

Below: Close-up of the flower clusters showing the long protruding stamens, characteristic of this flower.

Virginia Waterleaf

Below: 1st photo - The rhizomatous root structure. 2nd photo - The round seed capsule which contains 2 to 4 brown seeds.

Root system seeds

Below: 1st photo - Upper stem leaves have 3 to 5 lobes. 2nd photo - A basal leaf with 7 lobes.

upper leaf leaf

Below: An extensive group of the plants blooming in the 1st week of June. Found in moist parts of wooded Minnesota.

Virginia Waterleaf


Notes: Eloise Butler introduced the plant into the Garden in 1907 with specimens collected near the Lake Street Bridge in Minneapolis. She brought in additional plants in 1908 and in that year she observed a plant on April 19, 1908 that was already resident to the Garden and thus indigenous to the Garden area. Again, on April 22, 1912 she noted finding another group "by fence on the west border."

Eloise would write: "It may be recognized by the pinnately divided leaf, often blotched with white, and the somewhat showy flower cluster made up of lavender colored bells to which a touch of fragile grace is added by the slender protruding stamens." Published June 4, 1911, Sunday Minneapolis Tribune

Virginia Waterleaf is found in the eastern half of North America, not west of a line from Manitoba down to Oklahoma; absent in the gulf states and the far northeast. In Minnesota it is found in most counties with the exception being mainly along the Canadian border. It is one of two species of Hydrophyllum found in the state, the other being Hydrophyllum appendiculatum, the Great Waterleaf, which is found in only 10 counties in the SE Corner of the state.

References and site links

References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.

graphicIdentification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.