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Native Baptisia is Only the Beginning
by Kylee Baumle - posted 03/12/18

 

 

 

 


 

The use of native plantings continues to grow in popularity, but here’s one native that fits gardens of all types. Baptisias are sturdy, textural and fuss-free plants.

 

 

 

 

 

 



‘Twilite’ exhibits a unique bicolor bloom in violet and yellow and is a vigorous grower.

If you were to see a bloom from a Baptisia sp., without benefit of seeing the rest of the plant, you might think it’s a type of pea. See the entire plant, and that thought probably wouldn’t occur to you. It is, however, indeed a member of the legume family – Fabaceae to be exact – just like peas.

Native to central and eastern North America, Baptisia australis is an easy grower for those in USDA Zones 3 to 9. It’s not particularly picky about soils, nor moisture, being drought tolerant once established. It even thrives in clay. It grows in full sun to part shade and it’s not bothered by any notable pests or diseases. No doubt these things are what earned it the title of Perennial Plant of the Year in 2010.

 

‘Solar Flare’ is strongly vase-shaped, with blooms starting out yellow and aging to a beautiful scarlet. • The dried seedpods of baptisia sound like rattles when shaken and are often used in floral arrangements. • Baptisia ‘Starlite’


Native and Hybrid Varieties

‘Midnight’ has a two-fold bloom period, extending the display for a full month.

Baptisia is commonly known as wild indigo or blue false indigo, due to its use as a plant dye. Though not as superior for dyeing as true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), which is native to tropical climates, it is much more commonly found and is a somewhat suitable substitute. The sap of Baptisia australis turns dark blue when exposed to air.

Though the native baptisia flowers are a deep blue color, in recent years many new cultivars have come on the market, in luscious new shades and combinations of colors. All have the characteristic glaucous foliage, but blooms can be found in hues of yellow, violet, scarlet, blue and varying combinations of these.

From the Chicago Botanic Garden plant breeding program, Dr. Jim Ault has hybridized (and introduced through the Chicagoland Grows program) the Prairieblues series of baptisias, which have been extremely popular.

Like other plants to have come out of the Chicago program, the Prairieblues baptisias are especially well suited to the climate and growing conditions of the Upper Midwest, although they will also grow well in other zone-appropriate areas around the country and the world.

The Decadence series, hybridized by Hans Hansen and introduced by Walters Gardens and Proven Winners, is suited for smaller gardens, with four varieties – ‘Lemon Meringue’, ‘Dutch Chocolate’, ‘Cherries Jubilee’ and ‘Blueberry Sundae’ – having a mature height of 3 feet and a similar spread. Hansen is also responsible for another newer variety, ‘Vanilla Cream’, which has bronze foliage as it emerges in the spring.

Other available cultivars include ‘Purple Smoke’, ‘Carolina Moonlight’, ‘Chocolate Chip’ and ‘Wayne’s World’, a white variety introduced by Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina. Be sure to check plant tags for cold hardiness, because some cultivars are hardier than others.


Typical of many native plants, Baptisia australis has fewer individual blooms than most hybrids.
 

Companion Plants
Since baptisias tend to have a vase shape, they lend themselves well to low underplantings, such as:

• Pinks (Dianthus spp.)
• Coral bells (Heuchera spp.)
• Small hostas (‘Blue Mouse Ears’ or ‘Maui Buttercups’)
• Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum)
• Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides)
• Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ or ‘Aureola’)

Online Sources for Baptisia
Proven Winners
www.provenwinners.com

Garden Crossings
www.gardencrossings.com

Plant Delights Nursery
www.plantdelights.com

Bluestone Perennials, Inc.
www.bluestoneperennials.com

White Flower Farm
www.whiteflowerfarm.com

Growing Baptisia
Baptisia is a versatile plant, lending itself well to prairie gardens, foundation plantings and as a specimen plant. It’s easily grown from seed and can be winter sown. With its deep and extensive root system, it’s not recommended to move or divide an established mature baptisia.

Consider carefully where you want it, making sure you allow enough room for its full potential growth of 4 feet tall and wide. Remember that most varieties will splay out farther as the season progresses, especially if you allow its seedpods to remain. This can be controlled a bit with the use of peony rings. The plant can also be pruned to about 15-18 inches tall after flowering, which limits the flopping throughout the rest of the season.

If you choose to let the quirky seedpods remain, they will extend this plant’s interest well into the fall season. First appearing as elongated balloon puffs of green on the flowering stems, as the weeks go by seedpods darken and harden into rattling pods. As the plant senesces, the podded stems break away, and the seeds inside fall to the ground.

If you don’t want seedlings the following spring, cut the seedpods before they turn black and hard, but don’t discard them! They can provide marvelous texture to a bouquet, as many florists know.

 

 

‘Starlite’ has a more arching habit and is also more compact, topping out at 3 feet in all directions. • Yellow Baptisia ‘Carolina Moonlight’.

 


Nitrogen Fixation
Because baptisia is a legume, it is a plant that gives back to the soil in that it has nitrogen-fixing properties. Nodules form on the roots and convert nitrogen into a form that the plant itself uses, which also enriches the soil, helps it compete with adjacent plants and lessens the need for any supplemental fertilizing.

With all this going for it, baptisia is one plant that should be in every garden. It asks for little, but gives so much.

 

A version of this article appeared in a March/April 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Chicagoland Grows, Bailey Nurseries, and Kylee Baumle.

 


Kylee Baumle lives and gardens in rural Northwest Ohio and is the co-author of Indoor Plant Décor: The Design Stylebook for Houseplants (St. Lynn’s Press, 2013).