Extension Educator, Horticulture
Gold Medal, Oscar, Grammy, Golden Globe - awards are everywhere and for just about anything. In the perennial plant world the ultimate award is the Plant of the Year. The winners don't get a ceremony or statue but a place in our hearts and gardens.
Award winners are chosen by the members of the Perennial Plant Association for the plant's beauty, but also for its durability, suitability to a wide range of climate types, low maintenance, multiple seasonal interest, and easy growing nature.
This year's winner is not just another pretty face; baptisia, Baptisia australis (pronounced bap-TEEZ-ee-uh aw-STRAH-lis). Also called blue false indigo or wild indigo it is an eastern North American native. Native to the prairie its 12-foot long roots reach down in time to document the sunshine and storms of prairies past. Our Illinois native is white wild indigo, Baptisia alba, just as splendidly tough and richly beautiful as its blue cousin. Although early Americans used baptisia to produce dye, it is not the true blue indigo dye plant (Indigofera) of the West Indies.
Baptisia is appealing the minute its pea looking leaves and stems arise in spring. By late May the impressive 10-12 inch spikes of violet blue flowers adorn the ends of each stem. The sweet pea looking flowers and foliage trace back to baptisia's lineage in the bean family. The spires of blue hover over the silvery blue leaves to make a fetching focal point in the garden. The flower spikes show off for three to four weeks until the brown rattlebox seed pods form.
Once established baptisia is one tough cookie with its drought tolerance and adaptability. Baptisia grows best in full sun. It can get a bit floppy and need support in partial shade. In addition baptisia is seldom damaged by deer browsing.
Similar to many prairie plants baptisia spends its first couple years developing roots; therefore early in its life the flower show can be a bit disappointing with just a few stems. Just be patient. It will be worth it as it explodes the third year into blue fireworks. Baptisia will eventually get to a four foot wide and four foot tall shrub-like clump. Find the right spot and it will be there for years with little care. Mature plants are best not divided.
Each year while all the other flowers change partners around its feet, baptisia is the square dance caller of the flower bed. Plant spring flowering bulbs of daffodils or tulips around baptisia's ankles. Past perennial plants of the year such as 'Walker's Low catmint' and 'Becky' shasta daisy also make harmonious baptisia brethren.
Some magnificent cultivars and hybrids of baptisia have been introduced over the last few years including Starlite Prairieblues™, Twilite Prairieblues™, Midnight Prairieblues™ (long spikes of deep blue violet flowers) and the yellow flowered Solar Flare Prairieblues™ out of the Chicagoland Grows® breeding program. Another beauty is 'Purple Smoke' baptisia with smoky violet flower spikes on charcoal gray flower stems.
A good place to start in garden design is to include radiantly robust Perennial Plants of the Year designated by The Perennial Plant Association. Check their website for more winners http://www.perennialplant.org/