Here in Mississippi, even though it is only April, we seem to be rushing madly toward the summer.
The baptisia or false indigo is in full bloom unseasonably early. For me, that lovely perennial wildflower normally indicates that late spring is upon us.
I still remember the first time I saw white wild indigo on a Mississippi roadside. I was driving in adjoining Neshoba County when I spied a mounding 5′ plant that was covered with white spikey flowers. I came to a screeching halt and rapidly approached the interesting specimen. It looked like a lupine on steroids and had curious glaucous blue green leaves that were compound like clover. The stalks were purple.
I stood and gaped in amazement.
Immediately I knew that this was a member of the bean and pea family. I even knew that it was a false indigo or baptisia.
I soon had my find identified to species by my botany professor, Dr. Sidney McDaniel, as Baptisia leucantha, a white blooming false indigo. At that time, there were 4 or 5 white blooming species listed. Since then the taxonomists have consolidated all into a single species with two sub-divisions. So our Mississippi species has become Baptisia alba var. macrophylla.
I returned about 6 weeks later and collected a sack full of the lovely purple inflated bean pods from the plant. I shucked them out as if I were shelling butterbeans and soaked them overnight to kill a pestilence of weevils. In spite of the bugs, I had great germination and soon added this baptisia to our nursery list. I am glad I did because the highway department eradicated the mama plant and all her kin the next year.
Later I started visiting the Cajun Prairie in Eunice, Lousiana, where I discovered and fell in love with the yellow baptisias. To me the most beautiful of the several species of yellow false indigos is Baptisia sphaerocarpa. The plants themselves are smaller than the white species – usually 2′ to 3′ and are sometimes called bush clovers. The Cajun prairie is full of this lovely plant and in Mississippi we have it in a few southern counties. I was lucky enough to get a start of our Mississippi strain from my friend Allen Anderson. Again – it was collected from roadside population that has since been demolished.
Alan’s lovely yellow form is thriving happily in my bee meadow.
Both of these garden gems will cheerfully prosper in any site with reasonable moisture and full sun. A long tap root allows them to survive drought. They are at home in the baking heavy clay prairie soils in sites that are annually burned. I have grown them in sunny perennial borders in heavy clay with great results.
In addition to these two species I am fond of a couple of cultivars. ’Screaming Yellow’ is a loud yellow selection of B. sphaerocarpa made by the illustrious Larry Lowman in Arkansas. I haven’t actually seen it in bloom yet since I started with small plants. However the foliage is a beautiful healthy emerald green and the pictures of the flowers are striking. ’Carolina Moonlight’ is a cross between the white and yellow species. This variety was a volunteer discovered by Rob Gardner in the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Flowers are a pale yellow color and plants are quite vigorous. This hybrid produces no fruit.
The baptisias are lovely in all seasons. In late winter they emerge as curious purple-ish shoots that look a little like asparagus. Wonderful lupine-like flower stalks appear in late spring. Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery carries a good selection and calls them “redneck lupines”.
After the flowers are gone, interesting purple inflated pods can be used in floral arrangements or collected and shucked for the seed. I have learned to collect much earlier than I used to. I harvest as soon as seed pods begin to turn from green to purple. The seed inside should have just turned tan. Plant them immediately and they will sprout in a couple of weeks or so.
Or… you can leave the pods for ornamentation. Then for the rest of the year – except in the dead of winter – cool blue foliage provides the perfect backdrop for other flowers.
These baptisias are pest free and extremely long lived unless they encounter the staff of your local highway department!