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Beautiful Baptisia

This delightful stand of white baptisia is gracing an Alabama roadside. Hope it's still there when I return to get seed.

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.

The florets sparkle against white baptisia's charcoaly purple stems.

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.

This strain of yellow baptisia from south Mississippi is happily blooming in the bee meadow.

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!

 

 

 

False Indigo, Baptisia or “Redneck Lupine”?

The lovely white false indigo mingles with 'Alamo' switchgrass in my tiny prairie.

I still remember the first time I saw baptisia or false indigo on the roadside.  I was riding down the road near Philadelphia, Mississippi with a friend when I spied a 4’+ mounding plant in full glorious bloom.

I immediately started screaming “Stop Stop Stop!!!” much to the alarm of my companion who thought she was about to collide with some unseen obstacle.  We screeched to a halt and I was out of the truck and running back down the road toward the magnificent specimen.

My Botany teacher, Dr. Sidney McDaniel, identified my pristine white flowered find as Baptisia leucantha. The Taxonomists later got hold of it and renamed it Baptisia alba var. macrophylla as far as I’ve been able to determine.

I had a nursery at the time so I made note of the location and returned to harvest half a grocery sack full of seed pods a couple of months later.  I propagated it and sold it in the nursery for many years.

Baptisia is one of my favorite perennial flowers.    Since it is a a member of the pea family, the flowers are reminiscent of sweet peas but are arranged on an upright raceme.  They are attractive to native pollinators and to honey bees. The fruit is an inflated pea pod that turns purple at maturity.

Baptisia has attractive blue green foliage.  I love to watch it come out of dormancy.  During winter, the dried stalks wither and snap off revealing fat sassy purple buds at ground level.  The buds elongate into asparagus-like stalks before leafing and flowering.

Baptisia is native to the prairies.  It tolerates heavy soil, heat, drought  and full sun.  Its resilience is mostly due to the presence of a long tap root.  It is a deer resistant as well.  Since Baptisia is not palatable to cattle either, large stands will sometimes persist in pastures.

'Carolina Moonlight' baptisia mingles with a hardy gladiolus.

Tony Avent, proprietor of Plant Delights Nursery,  calls Baptisia “redneck lupines”.   It truly is the closest thing to a lupine that we can easily grow in the Deep South.

Plant Delights and several other nurseries sell the hybrid ‘Carolina Moonlight’ which is a the most vigorous baptisia that I grow.   ‘Carolina Moonlight’ was discovered by Rob Gardner as a chance seedling at the North Carolina Botanical Garden.  It is thought be be a cross between the yellow (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) and white (Baptisia alba).  The result is an abundance of creamy lemon yellow flowers.  Since ‘Carolina Moonlight’ is a cross between two species (like a mule) it is sterile and produces no fruit.

In addition to named varieties, there are many species of false indigo that can be found in the wild through much of the eastern U.S.

The blue flowered Baptisia austalis was recently named 2010 Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association.  The yellow flowered  species (B. sphaerocarpa) is  striking in Louisiana prairie remnants and is reported on the Mississippi Coast.    In Mississippi and most other states with prairie remnants, the white flowered species are the most common in the wild.

Regardless of your local version, all are great landscape plants.  The spring flowers are a delight in the garden or in a vase.  The cool blue green foliage is a nice addition to my garden’s green phase.  The purple inflated pods are interesting in late summer.  In late winter, I anxiously dig around in the mulch for a sighting of the sassy purple buds which will soon erupt into interesting purplish asparagus-like shoots.

There’s something going on in every season except the dead of winter.  All this on a plant that requires almost no maintenance if sited in full sun.

I am happy to know and love it.


 

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