A tidy plant easily mistaken for a small shrub, especially when it grows a the edge of the woods with the rest of the undergrowth. It belongs to the same family that gives us our garden periwinkles. The red stem and smooth, elliptical leaves give the plant an elegant appearance, and the little flowers look as though they were made from the finest porcelain. The plant is poisonous, however; the name “dogbane” attaches itself to the whole family for good reason. This plant was growing by a tombstone in an overgrown cemetery in Beechview, where it was blooming in the middle of July.
The distinctive long seedpods look a bit like string beans, as we see on another plant that grew by the edge of the woods in the same cemetery.
Gray describes the genus and the species:
APÓCYNUM [Tourn.] L. DOGBANE. INDIAN HEMP. Calyx-lobes acute. Corolla bell-shaped, bearing 5 triangular appendages below the throat opposite the lobes. Stamens on the very base of the corolla; filaments shorter than the arrow-shaped convergent anthers, which slightly adhere to the stigma. Style none; stigma large, ovoid, slightly 2-lobed. Fruit of 2 long and slender follicles. Seeds with a tuft of long silky down at the apex. — Perennial herbs, with upright branching stems, opposite mucronatepointcd leaves, a tough fibrous bark, and small and pale cymose flowers on short pedicels. (Ancient name of the Dogbane, composed of apo, from, and kyon, a dog.)
* * Corolla greenish to greenish-white, tubular, pentagonal, 3-4.5 mm. long, the lobes ascending; cymes terminal, of mostly ascending flowers.
A. cannábinum L. (INDIAN HEMP.) Glabrous, 2-24 dm. high, the stems and branches ascending (but on gravel beaches, etc., depressed and wide-spreading), leaves mostly ascending, usually pale green, ovate-oblong to lanceolate, glabrous or sparingly pubescent beneath, those of the chief axis narrowed at base to distinct petioles (2-7 mm. long), those of the branches often subsessüe: central cyme flowering first; flowers erect; calyx glabrous, its lobes about equaling the corolla, tube. — Gravelly or sandy soil, mostly near streams; on beaches becoming dwarfed and diffuse, with smaller and narrower leaves (A. album Greene). June-Aug.
In Wild Flowers East of the Rockies (1910), Chester Albert Reed does not share our opinion of the elegance of this plant; but he does give us a good description and some of the history of it:
INDIAN HEMP (Apocynum cannabinum) is a rather unattractive species with a smooth branching stem, rising from vertical roots to heights of 1 to 4 feet. The ovate-pointed leaves are lusterless, have very short stems and are closely crowded on the stalk oppositely to one another.
The small, five-parted, greenish-white flowers grow in terminal clusters. A tiny drop of nectar, secreted at the bottom of each small, shallow cup, furnishes food for quantities of insects, including a great many crawling ones that are of no value to the plant. The name of Indian Hemp has its origin because Indians formerly used the tough fibres as a substitute for hemp in their basket work. We find this species very abundant in dry fields and thickets throughout our range; it flowers from June to August.