I can remember the first time I saw the perennial flower baptisia. I was at Bernheim Forest in Clermont, just 15 minutes from where I grew up in Nelson County. It was early June and I was walking around the arboretum center. All the spaces around the building were filled with all sorts of perennials, many of which I had never seen. I knew then I would certainly end up a gardener.
The plant I saw was False or Wild Blue Indigo, Baptisia australis. Its flowers were 8 to 10 inches long and they stood straight up off the plant. The flowers on this plant were a beautiful light indigo blue, but they say the depth of color can vary tremendously when plants are propagated from seed. I was surprised when I saw the flowers up close because they looked like pea blossoms.
With most perennials blooming for only a short period of time, just two to three weeks, you have to plant quite a few different varieties in your garden to get the season-long color we all desire. Baptisia has the advantage of a longer bloom period, up to three or four weeks, making it a welcome addition to most perennial borders. The bold display of flowers on the baptisia makes it hard to miss in the mid- to late-spring garden when it’s in full flower.
There are also yellow and white flowering varieties of baptisia. The yellow flowering one isn’t my favorite because the combination of the soft blue-green foliage and yellow flowers seems a little conflicting to me for my own garden. I have seen a mass planting of a yellow flowered form called Screaming Yellow and it was an incredible, take-your-breath-away sight.
In my own garden, Baptisia alba,‘White Wild Indigo,’ is much more at home. The plant grows about 3 feet tall and an unusual 3 feet wide as well after a year or so. It is a big perennial by many standards, but fits in nicely even in small or urban garden space. The flowers of White Wild Indigo are fewer in number than those of Wild Blue Indigo, but they make up for it in size. The flower spikes are quite a bit larger, growing 12 to 16 inches long.
Foliage and pods
Baptisia foliage is quite beautiful even when no blooms are present. As the foliage begins to emerge in early spring, it’s fun to watch its progress. At first it looks like small fat asparagus spears, then it looks like peony foliage emerging, a little bit stalky, a little bit leafy, but then almost all at once it seems the foliage is 3 feet tall. The leaves are segmented, making it appear as if there are three leaves when in fact there is just one. The bluish-green color and overall size without flowers make this a beautiful plant throughout the growing season and even into fall.
After blooming is complete, dark brown pea-like pods form on the plant. When the pods dry they rattle in the wind, and are said to sound like a rattlesnake shaking the tip of its tail. I always prune the seed pods off once flowering is complete. They get a little heavy and cause the foliage to droop over and it looks wilted to me. Once the seed pods are removed, the foliage bounces right back up and the plant looks normal again.
This hardy and tough perennial is best planted in a garden where there is full sun. The most vigorous and prolific plants will be found growing in deep, rich soil, but I don’t know anyone who has that kind of soil in Kentucky, so don’t let that keep you from planting baptisia. It grows beautifully in my own garden and my house was built on what has to be subsoil, and it is quite dry year-round. The white flowered forms are known to grow and bloom quite well in part shade. The blue and yellow flowering forms will grow in part shade with beautiful foliage, but will have no flowers unless you keep them in full sun.
Blue and yellow flowering forms of baptisia, found growing natively throughout many parts of the United States and in the South, were used to make a substitute for yellow and indigo dye in the mid-1700s. The process was incredibly time-consuming and the quality of the dye was apparently not very good, so this proved to be a very short-lived agricultural commodity. Fortunately, they still make a beautiful garden plant.
Pace your gardening
It’s hard to focus on the details of your garden when spring fever is in the air. You don’t have to plant every plant and mulch every inch of your garden in two short months. I see it all too often, people jumping head-first into their garden in April and May, and by the time summer rolls around you are exhausted and burned-out.
Have a year-long plan for your garden. Make it a goal to spend a little time each day weeding and mulching and you won’t go to work with an aching back every Monday for the next month. Purchase and install new plants in your garden as you have time. If you do all your shopping for your garden in April and May, those are the two months your garden will look its best and I know you want it to look good all year. If you can water, you can plant anytime throughout the spring, summer, and fall with great success.
My own garden gets very little attention, if any, in April and May because I am so busy helping others with their gardens. In fact, it’s usually mid-June before we have time to do anything in it at all. Yet my garden is beautiful and healthy every month of the year. This year manage your spring fever, keep your focus open, and think of working in your garden as a fun and healthy activity that brings you and your garden visitors joy and happiness all year long.
Have a gardening question?
Go online to www.KentuckyLiving.com, click on Home & Garden on the left, and then on “Ask The Gardener” link.