Christmas is not too early for gardeners to be making their spring wish list for the garden. If your wish is to include more native perennials in your garden, then an excellent addition is the Perennial Plant Association’s 2010 Perennial of the Year, Baptisia australis, Blue False Indigo.
The Perennial Plant Association has been selecting a “Perennial Plant of the Year” since 1990. Over the years, several outstanding native plants have been chosen as Plant of the Year, including Purple Coneflower ‘Magnus,’ Black-eyed Susan ‘Goldsturm,’ Phlox ‘David,’ Penstemon ‘Husker Red,’ Creeping Phlox (Phlox stolonifera) and Threadleaf Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam.’
Blue False Indigo is certainly a worthy addition to this list of fine native perennials. It may be familiar to many gardeners, having long been a tried and true favorite in the perennial border; but the recent introduction of several cultivated varieties, along with the resurgence of interest in native plantings, has rekindled an appreciation for the many fine qualities of Baptisia.
Baptisia is a durable long-lived plant, native to the eastern and Midwest United States, that provides interest in the garden during several seasons. It is drought-tolerant once established; it requires very little maintenance; and it has few, if any, pest or disease problems. Deer usually leave it alone. It is the only known food for the larval stage of the Wild Indigo Duskywing, a small butterfly.
It forms a large, shrub-like clump with multiple stems, attractive three-part leaves of a soft blue-green color, and spires of indigo-blue flowers that somewhat resemble lupines. In my garden, it blooms usually in late May.
The flowers last only a few weeks, but their blue color offers a lovely contrast to the whites and pastel pinks of spring flowers, such as peonies and roses. The flowers also look good with other blue and purple flowers such as Siberian irises. The blue-green foliage is an excellent complement to the yellow and gold of late summer flowers such as black-eyed Susan and an attractive contrast to fine-textured ornamental grasses.
The flowers are followed by inflated seedpods that start out green and turn blackish-brown as they mature; the seeds inside are loose and roll around inside the pod. Native Americans used the seedpods as children’s rattles. The pods hang on the stems, providing interest even in the winter garden; many people like to use them in dried arrangements.
Care of Baptisia is extremely easy, as long as you take some care in site selection. It definitely prefers full sun and works well in sunny perennial borders or in less formal meadow plantings. It will tolerate light shade, but may not flower as well; if the shade is too deep, it will flop and sprawl open. The heat and humidity of our summers does not faze it.
Although it prefers moist, slightly acidic soil, it will tolerate dry, infertile soils. In all situations, good drainage is critical. Because it is a member of the Pea family, it is able to fix nitrogen in the soil, so requires little fertilization. Over time, it develops an extensive root system with a deep taproot, which means that it does not like to be moved, but also that it is extremely tolerant of droughty conditions. Division is seldom if ever required.
Given time, Baptisia reaches a mature height of 3 to 4 feet and a spread of 4 feet, so allow it plenty of room to grow. One plant or a small group will form a sizable presence in the garden. It is slow to get established; it is a good example of the gardening adage about perennials: “First year, it sleeps; second year, it creeps; third year, it leaps” – although it may take Baptisia a few more than three years before it reaches its full glory.
The only maintenance required is to cut down the old stems once a year. Because the new stems are slow to emerge in spring, I leave the old stems standing over winter to act as a marker for the plant, and then cut them back above the first new shoots that I see in spring. You can cut back the stems by a third after flowering, to keep the nice mounded shape of the plant, but it’s not necessary and you lose the seedpods if you do so.
Because I love blue flowers, I am happy to make a place in my garden for this outstanding native; its easy-going, low-maintenance, durable nature makes Baptisia even more of a winner in my book.
Annette MaCoy is the consumer horticulture extension educator and master gardener coordinator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County. If you have garden questions, contact Annette at 240-6500 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.