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Chicago Urban Gardening

The day to day experiences of a University of Illinois Extension Urban Horticulture Educator in Chicago, Illinois

2010 Perennial Plant of the Year

Posted by Ron Wolford -

The Perennial Plant Association has announced the Perennial Plant of the year for 2010, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Selected by the PPA membership, Baptisia australis receives the honor," said Martha Smith. "Pronounced bap-TEEZ-ee-uh as-STRAH-lis, common names are blue false indigo, wild indigo, and baptisia, but it can also be called indigo weed, rattleweed, and rattlebrush.

"This eastern United States native is a member of the Fabaceae family (or what was formerly Leguminosae). The name of the genus, Baptisia, is derived from the ancient Greek word bapto, meaning to dip (dye) or immerse, while the specific epithet australis is Latin for southern."

Blue false indigo forms an upright habit, three to four feet tall and three to four feet wide. This exceptional perennial is a very adaptable species and grows across a wide range of zones.

Smith warns gardeners to be patient with Baptisia. "When first planted it looks sparse with only a few stems," she noted. "By the third summer, the clump will fill out and reach its full size."

This four-foot shrub-like habit perennial should be carefully placed in the landscape. It grows best in full sun but can survive in partial shade. For best appearance, it should be staked if grown in the shade to prevent flopping. It is drought tolerant due to a tap root that prefers not to be disturbed once established. Some clumps of Baptisia are 20 years old and have never been divided. This low-maintenance quality is another attractive feature.

Spring flowers are violet-blue, lupine like, and form erect 10- to 12-inch racemes. These flower stalks extend well above the trifoliate bluish-green leaves.

Blooms grace the garden for three to four weeks. The flowers become attractive, charcoal black, inflated seed pods, which are often used in flower arrangements. The dried seed pods rattle in the late summer breeze creating a pleasant sensory attraction. The early common name rattleweed resulted from children using the seed pods as rattles. The current common name of blue false indigo refers to the use of this perennial by early Americans as a dye–not as strong as the true indigo (genus Indigofera of the West Indies) but a moderate substitute.

"There are no serious insect or disease problems," said Smith. "A desirable attribute of blue false indigo is that it is not preferred by deer. Baptisia contains several alkaloids that have a bitter taste, making it unpalatable to deer."

Baptisia australis is an excellent choice for the back of the border. Pair it with mid-season peonies and enjoy the floral bouquet they create side by side. Also consider spring-blooming bulbs to accent the violet-blue flowers. The blue-green foliage offers a summer backdrop for many perennial combinations.

This native beauty has something to offer all season long. If you are looking for a long-lived, low-maintenance, virtually pest-free perennial native, consider Baptisia australis for your landscape this year.

Source: Martha Smith:smithma@illinois.edu



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