Baptisia – Both Beautiful and Indestructible!
If you are looking for a plant that is both beautiful AND indestructible for your spring landscape, consider investing in Baptisia australis. But first, a little background: The name, in case you’re interested, is derived from the ancient Greek word bapto, meaning “to dip” or “immerse.” The specific name australis comes from the Latin word for “southern.” Early settlers in this country made blue dye from this plant, using it as a substitute for the true indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria), which is from India. Thus, the plant became known as blue false indigo. It is native to the eastern and mid-western areas of the United States and is known by more than a half dozen common names. Some people know it as wild indigo, rattleweed, or rattlebush. Others know it simply as Baptisia (pronounced bap-TIZ-ee-ah). Regardless of what it’s called, this plant has a lot to offer both in terms of floral display and foliage.
Whether planted as a single specimen or as a grouping, false indigo provides multi-season interest in the ornamental garden. A member of the legume family, its blue-green trifoliate foliage and blue-purple blossoms harmonize beautifully in the spring landscape. The attractive, upright, shrubby form and foliage add pleasing color and texture to the landscape even after the flowers have long disappeared. This easy-care plant looks stunning by itself but it also makes a great companion for peonies, roses, bearded iris, lady’s mantle, or allium. In the fall, the blue-green foliage complements many gold-flowering plants, such as black-eyed Susan and sneezeweed.
Depending on the cultivar, false indigo typically blooms for about three to six weeks in late spring to early summer. The blossoms measure about one inch in length and appear on long racemes measuring up to a foot or more in length. The plant provides nectar to a variety of butterflies and pollinators, which makes it very valuable in the landscape. Even hummingbirds are attracted to the blooms. After the blossoms fade, light green “pea pods” form along the flower stalks and gradually turn an attractive dark gray or black in late summer. The pods make interesting additions to fall flower arrangements.
False indigo is generally easy to find at local garden centers or through plant catalogs and, of course, on-line. While the species is an attractive plant in its own right, several breeding programs have expanded the Baptisia color palette and introduced some interesting alternatives to the straight species. The North Carolina Botanical Garden’s breeding program, for example, introduced two of the most popular hybrids on the market today:
- ‘Purple Smoke’ – Blossoms have a smoky purple eye in the center of violet-blue flowers. Introduced in 1996, this hybrid is widely available commercially and is the best known of the hybrid forms.
- ‘Carolina Moonlight’ – Soft butter yellow flowers. Introduced in 2002, this hybrid is a cross between white-blooming B. alba and yellow-blooming B. sphaerocarpa, which are both native species.
Over the course of more than a decade, mid-western plant hybridizer Hans Hansen of Walters Gardens, Inc., developed a series of false indigos that are more compact than the species and have unique flower coloration. Sold through the Proven Winners “Decadence Series” perennial program, the names will make you salivate:
- ‘Blueberry Sundae’ – Deep indigo blue, which is more vibrant in color than the native species.
- ‘Cherries Jubilee’ – Maroon and yellow blossoms that age to gold.
- ‘Dutch Chocolate’ — Deep brownish purple.
- ‘Lemon Meringue’ – Bright lemon yellow.
- ‘Vanilla Cream’ – Soft pastel yellow opening to creamy vanilla white.
Between 2006 and 2009, Dr. Jim Ault, a hybridizer at the Chicago Botanic Garden, introduced the following hybrids, which are sold as the “Prairieblues™” series:
- ‘Twilite’ — Deep purple tinged with butter yellow edges.
- ‘Starlite’ – Soft blue with creamy white at the base of each blossom.
- ‘Midnight’ – Deep violet blue.
- ‘Solar Flare’ – Bright yellow fading to deep orange.
‘Screaming Yellow’ is a selection of yellow wild indigo (B. sphaerocarpa) that is also easily obtained commercially. However, the name suggests that the color may be jarring, so try to find a specimen in bloom before you purchase it to make sure you like it. More compact than ‘Carolina Moonlight,’ ‘Screaming Yellow’ has more vibrant yellow blossoms and blooms with a more profuse flower display.
If a paler palette is more to your liking, look for Baptisia alba, B. lactea, or B. leucantha, all of which have white or creamy white flowers.
False indigo is a long-lived plant that is both cold hardy and drought tolerant. These characteristics make it useful in landscapes ranging from cold, blustery Zone 3 to hot, humid Zone 9. Once established, it can grow to three or four feet or more in height and width, so give it plenty of room in the garden. In appearance, a well-established specimen looks like a small multi-stemmed shrub but it dies back to soil level in the late fall. It is not fussy about soil pH, but it is happiest when planted in well-drained neutral to slightly acid soil.
Two issues can cause false indigo to split in the middle or flop over: insufficient sunlight and the weight of the pods. To solve the first problem, site the plant where it will receive a minimum of 6 hours of full sun. To solve the second problem, shear back the plant by about a third after it finishes blooming. This will remove the pods that form after the plant finishes blooming.
Plan well when planting false indigo. It has a long tap root which contributes to the plant’s hardiness and drought tolerance but makes it very difficult to move the plant after the first year or two in the ground. The deep root mass also makes it difficult to divide the plant. So, it is best left alone.
Because it is a member of the legume family, false indigo fixes nitrogen in the soil. In other words, this means that the plant can convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use as a nutrient.
False indigo has few pests or diseases. Deer, rabbits and groundhogs rarely bother it. Butterfly larvae may strip some foliage from the plant, but the plant generally survives with no ill effects. Fungal diseases such as leaf spot, powdery mildew, or rust can occur if the plant is crowded or grown in damp conditions. To prevent these diseases, give the plant plenty of space in well-drained soil.
In summary, false indigo has it all. It is beautiful, hardy, disease and pest free, and particularly easy to care for. It thrives in average, well-drained soil in full sun. It does not need to be fertilized, nor does it need to be deadheaded or divided. Either cut the foliage back to the ground in the fall, or leave it in place over winter. The choice depends on your personal aesthetic. Then, just sit back and enjoy the show for many years to come.
North Carolina Botanical Garden (http://ncbg.unc.edu/plant-introductions/).
Chicago Botanic Garden (http://www.chicagobotanic.org/).
Walters Gardens Hybridizers (http://www.waltersgardens.com/).
United States Department of Agriculture Plants Database (http://plants.USDA.gov/).
Clausen, Ruth Rogers, 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants, 2011.
DiSabato-Aust, Tracy, 50 High-Impact, Low-Care Garden Plants, 2008.
Mellichamp, Larry, Native Plants of the Southeast, 2014.