The Friends of the Wildflower Garden, Inc.

Plants of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States

Wild Sweet William

Common Name
Wild Sweet William (Meadow Phlox, Spotted Phlox)


Scientific Name
Phlox maculata L.


Plant Family
Phlox (Polemoniaceae)

Garden Location
Historical - 1911 - not extant


Prime Season
Early Summer to Autumn



Wild Sweet William is a native perennial forb growing to 3 feet high on smooth erect stems that are usually unbranched. Stems are purplish or at a minimum, streaked with purple or purple spotted - hence one of the common names - 'Spotted Phlox'.

The leaves are opposite, green to dark green, narrow lance-shaped with smooth margins and surfaces, up to 4 inches long and 1/2 inches wide, with tapering narrow tips. The leaf is widest just above the base, which is stalkless but forming a small sheath at the stem.

The inflorescence is a cyme - a cylindrical terminal branched cluster of stalked flowers that can be 8 to 12 inches long on this plant.

The flowers have a greenish tubular calyx with 5 pointed lobes, the lobes about 1/4 the corolla tube length. The corolla with 5 lobes' forms a long tube with the 5 lobes spreading at the top to form a flattened disk like many Phlox species flowers. The corolla lobe tips are rounded and pink but can also be found white or purplish. When pink, the lobes can have a whitish blotch in the center or a white tinge along the lobe separations. Each flower has a very short stalk. The 5 stamens, with yellow anthers, and the pistil do not protrude beyond the throat of the corolla tube.

Seed: Fertile flowers produce an ovoid 1/3 inch seed capsule. These capsules break into 3 sections, dispensing dark brown oval seeds explosively when mature and dry. Seeds are about 1.5 mm x 3 mm. Seeds require at least 60 days of cold stratification for germination.


Habitat: Wild Sweet William grows in moist prairie soils in full to partial sun. It has a fibrous root system surrounding a short tap root. It is not very drought tolerant. As a native species it is usually not afflicted with mildew as are many garden phlox species.

Names: The genus Phlox covers 67 species, mostly in North America. The word is from the Greek word phlox, and means 'flame' which would have something to do with the colorful shape of the inflorescence atop a slim erect stem. The species, maculata, is a Latin word used when 'spotting' is part of a plant's description. Here, this refers to the stems which appear to be purple-spotted. The author name for the plant classification, 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.

Comparisons: Phlox flowers tend to look very similar so petal shape and leaves must be checked. Compare - Garden Phlox, P. paniculata; Downy Phlox, P. pilosa; and Wild Blue Phlox, P. divaricata.

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

Wild Sweet William flowers Wild Sweet William plant Wild Sweet William root

Above: 1st photo - The flower cyme of ssp. maculata is cylindrical, taller than wide. 2nd photo - Stems are usually not branched. 3rd photo - The fibrous root system surrounds a short taproot.

Below: 1st photo - The corolla lobes have rounded edges, with traces of white - sometimes at the center as seen hear and sometimes along the lobe edges as shown in the photo farther below. 2nd photo - Leaves form a small sheath to the stalk, which is of spotted purple color. Leaves show only a prominent central vein and are not hairy.

Wild Sweet William flower Wild Sweet William leaf node
Wild Sweet William leaf

Below: The seed capsule with the drying calyx lobes beneath splits into 3 sections releasing the dark oval seeds.

Seed capsule seeds
Wild Sweet William flower cluster
plant group


Notes: Wild Sweet William is not indigenous to the Garden. Eloise Butler introduced it to the Garden on Oct. 15, 1911 with 12 plants she obtained from Kelsey's Nursery in North Carolina. Additional plants in 1916 and 1919. In 1933 Martha Crone planted it on June 18, with plants she sourced near Anoka MN. In the development of the Upland Garden after 1944 she added plants in 1946, '47, '48, '49, '51 and seeds in 1954. Plants were listed on her 1951 census, but not on any later census. Wild Sweet William is found in North America east of the Mississippi River with a few exceptions - not known in Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, New Hampshire, Massachusetts or Wisconsin. It is considered an introduced plant in eastern Canada. Within Minnesota, native populations are currently known only from 9 counties in the SE section of the state, all south of the metro area.

Minnesota Species: There are two recognized subspecies of P. maculata in the U.S., ssp. pyramidalis where the inflorescence is wider at the bottom forming a pyramid shape; and ssp. maculata, where the inflorescence is cylindrical. Neither the University of Minnesota or the MN-DNR distinguishes between them in their listings as ssp. maculata is considered the only one found in Minnesota and is currently listed on the Minnesota "Special Concern" plant list. The only other two native species of Phlox in Minnesota are Wild Blue Phlox, P. divaricata and Downy (or Prairie) Phlox, P. pilosa.

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.