When I first met my husband Dave, he was something of a weekend gardener. He was living in a small apartment, but often went home to Paxton, Illinois, on the weekends to help his family on the farm. He had planted a few roses at his parents' house, and often brought me a vaseful after visiting them on weekends. One spring day, as I accompanied him to his parents' home, he introduced me to one of his most treasured plants, which he referred to as a Gas Plant. He had rescued it from his great aunt Jessie's yard when her house was being sold, and had given it a new home in his parents' yard.
The gas plant, Dictamnus albus, is a long-lived perennial shrub, with leathery, glossy green leaves that grow in opposing pairs along the stems. It is very drought tolerant, and prefers full sun, though it can tolerate some shade, and is hardy in USDA zones 3 to 7. It grows 24 to 36 inches in height, though the bloomstalks easily add another 10 to 12 inches to its height in the spring. It isn't picky about soil pH, and grows in a wide variety of soil types and garden conditions. I often see butterflies visiting my blooms, particularly swallowtails, which is an added bonus!
A gas plant is much prettier than its name might indicate. It bears upright spikes of blooms that look almost like miniature orchids, with striking upward curving stamens. The one my husband rescued from his great aunt's yard was a rosy pink in color, with striking burgundy veining throughout each bloom. Typical bloom colors can range from white, Dictamnus albus 'Alba'; purple or pale pink, Dictamnus alba 'Purpureaus'; and red, Dictamnus alba 'Rubra'. I have not found the red variety advertised for sale, though both the albus and purpureaus forms are available if you are willing to do a little searching. The blooms begin to open at the base of the bloom stalk, and gradually progressively open up along the bloomstalk, each bloom adding its own layer of beauty to the stem. My sense of smell is not particularly keen, but I find the fragrance very pleasant, almost a little citrusy.
The gas plant's claim to fame, however, isn't its lovely, delicate flowers. It is the flammable fumes that those flowers produce. I've never been able to reproduce the effect, but have both heard and read that if you light a match near a bloom on a still, windless day, that it will produce a puff of blue flame. I've also read that the seed pods, leaves, and stems are also highly flammable. The flammability of the plant undoubtedly led to another common name for it, the "burning bush," though it is definitely a distinctly different plant than what I grew up calling a burning bush, Euonymus alatus. I personally have not succeeded in producing a burst of flame from the blooms, though I can assure you from personal experience that the resin they produce can cause burning, blistering rashes. I have discovered that I need to wear protective clothing and gloves any time I work near the gas plant, as even the lightest brushes against the leaves produce raised welts and oozing blisters on my arms and legs. Other people seem to be much less sensitive; however, proceed with caution!
My husband related to me how very difficult the plant had been to move, as it had a long, deep tap root. He'd had to dig up a sizeable chunk of dirt along with the roots in order to ensure it survived transplanting. It has remained in its current location for the past 20 odd years, though it is a little the worse for wear, as it had been run over by a bulldozer in the process of building their new house. I would recommend that you carefully consider where you plan to locate the plant, and choose a permanent location where it can be left undisturbed (by shovels or bulldozers) for years to come.
When my husband and I bought our first house nearly 10 years ago, I decided the time had come for him to have a few gas plants of his own. Initially, I tried to collect seeds from his great aunt's plant, thinking it would be most meaningful to have offspring from the original plant. The seed heads of the dictamnus plant are star-shaped, and the seeds are very hard and shiny black, with a pronounced point at one end. I tried various methods of starting it from seed, including freezing the seeds, providing bottom warmth, and nicking them with a nail clipper, then putting them in a baggie with a moist paper towel. None of my efforts met with success. After about the sixth attempt, I decided the wiser choice would be to find one at a local nursery, or order one online. My requests at nurseries tended to produce at worst a blank, dubious stare, and at best a vague, "Oh, I think I've heard of that. . ." so I turned to the internet. Apparently the gas plant has largely fallen out of favor as a popular perennial in the garden. Several times I placed an order, only to have the company contact me at shipping time to let me know the plants were not available.
Finally, I stumbled upon Lazy S's Farm Nursery in the Garden Watchdog Top 30, and discovered that they carried both the albus and purpureaus forms of the dictamnus plant. My heart sank when they contacted me at shipping time, sure that they, too, would tell me that the plant was no longer available. My spirits lifted once again when I read the e-mail. They were not satisfied with the quality of the albus plants, but said the purpureaus were fine and healthy. My order arrived promptly, and was incredibly well-packed! That year, my husband received two gas plants for an early Father's Day gift.
As I write this, my husband's two plants are happily blooming, now in their fourth year in our garden. They bloom at the same time as the tall bearded iris and columbine that are planted nearby, and offer a unique contrasting bloom size and shape. Visitors to my garden often ask me what they are, and are intrigued by the story behind the common name "gas plant." Little boys, in particular, seem eager to test the flammability of the plant for some reason. I was just pleased to finally be able to provide my husband with this blooming reminder of his beloved great aunt Jessie.
I'd like to extend special thanks to the following Dave's Garden members, for submitting their pictures to PlantFiles, and graciously allowing me to use them in this article:
David Carson (my husband!): top close-up image of gas plant bloom
Stacy VanHoorn (Dogmother01): picture of entire Dictamnus plant
Sue Taylor (Kniphofia): picture of white 'alba' form of Dictamnus
Bootandall: picture of seedheads and seeds
The final picture is my own.