On a particularly warm May afternoon, a walk through a piece of prairie reveals a blue as blue as the spring sky. The false indigo (Baptisia australis) is in full bloom among the young grasses and forbs in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden. Stately and long-lived, baptisias are members of the bean family (Fabaceae). They show off their pea-like flowers clustered on long wands above handsome foliage during mid to late spring. In late summer, intriguing and ornamental black seed pods appear. Give them a shake and listen – you’ll discover why they were once used as rattles.
All species are deeply rooted and, though they are herbaceous, have a shrub-like appearance with great foliar texture. Mention Baptisia and most will think of the blue flowering species. However, there are georgeous white and bright yellow-flowering ones as well. Baptisia is derived from the Greek bapto, “to dye”, hence the common name false or wild indigo. In the 1700’s, some were hopeful that this plant would replace true indigo as a dye. Alas, the dye was not fast and the project a failure, but the name stuck. Wild indigo was widely used by Native Americans as a medicinal plant.
The tallest of all baptisias (5 to 6 feet) is Baptisia alba (formerly B. leucantha), or white indigo, and it is a common species in Missouri. Strong, erect flower stems reach toward the sky, covered in pure white flowers. White indigo is naturally found growing in many different habitats, from wet to dry prairies and occasionally in glades and on open rocky slopes. Good news for gardeners – this indicates that is also the most tolerant of varying soil types, even though it prefers a more moist soil.
Baptisia bracteata (formerly B. leucophaea) is the earliest to bloom, bearing arching stems lushly covered in creamy yellow flowers beginning in April. It is also the shortest one with a 2-foot tall, compact growth habit. In the wild, the cream indigo is commonly found growing in more acidic soils in glades and open woodlands (savannas). This translates to planting it in areas of the garden that are light shade to partial shade.
The yellow wild indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) is breathtaking when in bloom. Its profuse crop of rich yellow flowers creates a bright 3 to 4-foot tall bouquet. A cultivar that goes by the name of “Screamin” Yellow’ accurately describes the visual effect. Rare in Missouri, it is nonetheless one that should be used more in Missouri gardens.
Baptisia australis, blue wild indigo, is no stranger to the gardening world since it has been in the nursery trade for many years, and is a Plants of Merit. The lush, blue green foliage is reason enough to add this 3 to 4-foot tall plant to your landscape. The real reward is the bounty of cobalt blue flowers that rise above the foliage. Blue indigo is tolerant of hot, sunny and dry locations, indicated by the fact that it grows naturally on glades and in prairies.
Create a natural feel and good textural contrast by combining baptisias with native grasses. Good choices are prairie dropseed (Sporobolis), sideoats grama (Bouteloua) or little bluestem (Schizachyrium). Bluestar (Amsonia) is another fine textured companion to plant with baptisias. Its sky-blue flowers appear at the same time in mid spring. New Jersey tea (Ceonanthus) is a 3-foot shrub and another mid-spring bloomer with wonderful rounded white flower clusters. Try planting it aside or in front of the blue or yellow indigo. What has a shorter stature for planting in the foreground? A few great options are alum root (Heuchera richardsonii), rose verbena (Verbena canadensis) and even the native prickly pear cactus (Opuntia). These combinations work together well regardless of whether you have a more conventional garden design or a much looser, naturalistic design.
More Baptisia Companions
The following is a list of other Missouri native plants that live in similar habitats to and bloom at the same time as Baptisia. It might give you more ideas and options for planting combination’s.
- Amorpha canescens – lead plant
- Amsonia illustris/A. ciliata – bluestar
- Asclepias purpurascens – milkweed
- Asclepias tuberose – butterfly weed
- Callirhoe involucrata – Purple poppy mallow
- Camassia scilloides – wild hyacinth
- Ceonothus americana – New Jersey tea
- Dodecatheon meadii – shooting star
- Echinacea purpurea – purple coneflower
- Heuchera richardsonii/H. villosa – alum root
- Monarda fistulosa – beebalm
- Penstemon digitata – beardtongue
- Oenothera macrocarpa – Missouri evening primrose
- Opuntia humifusa – prickly pear cactus
- Tradescantia ernestiana – spiderwort
- Verbena canadensis – rose verbena
- Zizia aurea – golden Alexander
Cindy Gilberg, horticulturist and Missouri native, founded and ran the garden center at Gilberg Perennial Farms with her husband Doug for 28 years, also teaching classes and workshops on gardening and garden design. She now focuses on garden design, consulting and teaching, and also works part-time in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, emphasizing the use of native plants in home landscaping.