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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

False Indigo, Baptisia australis,

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. I first discovered Baptisia australis when we bought our house ten 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. One 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.

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.

About three years after planting, my plant reached its mature size from a one gallon container. It was really crowded in its original location, so in 2010 I finally summoned up the courage to try to move it. I figured I had nothing to lose, as the plant needed to be moved. If it lived, great, if not, the plants are fairly inexpensive and reach mature size quickly.

I dug my plant in very early April, before it had begun to sprout much. The description "large taproot" is an understatement. That taproot went way deeper than I could dig! I dug as much of it as I could, replanted it and hoped for the best. That year my plant was smaller than usual, probably because it was recovering from the recent transplanting. In 2011 my plant was bigger than ever, and very much at home in its new location.

We have expanded our use of Baptisia in our landscape since that first plant we bought ten years ago. We planted the purple flowered Baptisia in another part of our yard, and I happened upon a cultivar from the Proven Winners® Decadence® series called 'Vanilla Cream'. The foliage is bronze when it first emerges in the spring, and it has yellow buds which open to cream colored flowers. It is a new cultivar for 2015, so time will tell if it is as fuss-free as the native purple flowered species. There are several other Decadence® Baptisia cultivars, with two more to be released next year:

  • 'Blueberry Sundae'—pale lavender flowers
  • 'Cherries Jubilee'—maroon and yellow flowers age to gold.
  • 'Lemon Meringue'—lemon yellow flowers
  • 'Dutch Chocolate'—chocolate-purple flowers

Other Baptisia to consider:

  • 'Twilite Prairieblues™'—deep purple flowers, plant height up to 5 feet tall; a selection from the Chicago Botanic Garden plant breeding program
  • 'Solar Flare Prairieblues™'—lemon yellow flowers age to orange; another selection from the Chicago Botanic Garden plant breeding program
  • 'Carolina Moonlight'—butter yellow flowers
  • 'Purple Smoke'—Dusky purple flowers on charcoal stems
  • Baptisia tinctoria—a wild species of yellow flowered Baptisia

If you are in need of a perennial that needs little to no attention after being established, consider Baptisia. While these plants perform best in a sunny location with well-drained soil, they will tolerate a wide range of conditions without much protest.

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