Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Native plants have shown increasing popularity in recent years. Since native plants are well adapted to the local climate, they tend to be great low maintenance choices for the garden. The Perennial Plant Association has named a hardy native plant of the Midwest and eastern United States its 2010 Perennial Plant of the Year-- False Indigo, Baptisia australis.
I first discovered Baptisia australis when we bought our house five years ago. I was looking for blue-flowered plants to use for the Illini garden we wanted to plant. A friend suggested Baptisia. One look at a picture of the flowers and I knew it was a great choice.
Baptisia australis produces spikes of violet-blue flowers held high above rounded blue-green leaves that somewhat resemble clover. The flowers resemble large versions of pea or bean flowers, but that is not surprising considering the genus Baptisia is a member of the pea family.
Like other members of the pea family, Baptisia have bacteria associated with their roots that "fix" nitrogen, taking nitrogen from the atmosphere and transforming it into forms that plants can use.
When the flowers fade and seeds develop, Baptisia's membership in the pea family is even more apparent. Seeds are produced in pea-like pods that eventually darken from green to black and have ornamental uses in flower arrangements.
I have noticed on my own plant that the flower stems can be somewhat fragile. Last spring I was excited to see my plant was totally covered in flower buds. When the stems had elongated and the buds were about to open, a spring storm swept through with high winds. About three-quarters of the flower stems were snapped off, almost as if someone had come through with a set of pruners and cut them off. I still had a few flowers to enjoy, but it was nothing like when the entire plant is engulfed in blue flowers.
Although this plant is considered to be an herbaceous perennial that dies back to the ground each year, it has a very shrub-like appearance in the landscape. It grows in a mounded shape, about three to four feet high and wide at maturity.
It took about three years for my plant to reach its mature size from a one gallon container. I wish I had given it a bit more room, as it is looking crowded now. I am debating whether to attempt to move it.
Baptisia has a very deep root system that includes a large taproot. This extensive root system is good in that it makes the plant highly drought resistant, but makes transplanting difficult. Keeping as much of the root system intact when transplanting is a must. Sources say it is worth trying to transplant it, but be prepared to purchase a new plant as the success rate is low.
I figure I have nothing to lose, as the plant needs to be moved from its current location. If it lives, great, if not, the plants are fairly inexpensive and reach mature size quickly.
Baptisia australis earned its common name of False Indigo from the Cherokee's use of this plant as a source of blue dye. Its genus name Baptisia comes from the Greek 'bapto' meaning "to dip or dye". This plant also has a long list of medicinal uses, treating minor and major illnesses. Medical researchers are looking at this plant's potential for stimulating the immune system. It is worth noting that this plant has potential to be toxic and so experimenting with medicinal uses is not advised.
If you are in need of a perennial that needs little to no attention after being established, consider Baptisia australis. There are also white and yellow flowered species available with similar hardy reputations. While these plants perform best in a sunny location with well-drained soil, they will tolerate a wide range of conditions without much protest.