It’s been a while since I put a plant in the spotlight, and I thought this week I would highlight one that is currently blooming here on the farm: Baptisia. This beautiful plant is one of my favorite perennials to grow, and if you’re not presently growing it, perhaps after reading this, you’ll want to. Baptisia comes in various colors and is a beautiful addition to any garden, adding height and texture to the back of the border.
First, a little background: Baptisia, also known as wild indigo or false indigo, is a genus in the legume family. Like other pea family members, their flowers are followed by pods. Baptisia is native to grasslands and woodlands of eastern and southern North America. They are rugged, long-lived perennials with tall spires of colorful blooms resembling lupines. The foliage is trifoliate (composed of three leaves) and is arranged alternately down the stems. Foliage color varies from blue-green to yellow-green depending on the variety. They can take several years to mature and bloom and resemble shrubs when they reach their mature height of 3-4 feet. Baptisia alba and Baptisia australis are the most common species, but there are around 20 species of Baptisia.
The botanical name Baptisia is derived from the Greek word bapto, which means to dye or to dip. Native Americans and early settlers in the U.S. used wild indigo flowers to produce a blue dye before true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) replaced them when it was discovered that true indigo made a higher-quality dye. Despite no longer being used for dye, the popularity of Baptisia as an ornamental plant remained, as they provide an extended season of interest. After the flowers fade, large clusters of seed pods add texture and movement to the garden. Once established, these perennials are also drought tolerant, generally pest free, heat and humidity tolerant, and deer resistant, making them excellent low-maintenance, yet attractive, plants. Baptisia does not require pruning or trellising, although you can trim the old bloom spikes after flowering if you don’t enjoy the look of the seed pods. They are also unusually long-lived for a perennial, growing and blooming in the exact location for decades.
Baptisia prefers rich, well-drained soil and full sun (at least six hours of sunlight). Cold hardiness varies by species, but most are hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8. However, it’s worth noting that their deep, brittle root systems make them difficult to transplant or divide, so propagation is done by seeds or cuttings.
So, now that you know the background and general care for Baptisia let me tell you why, as a flower farmer, I love them so much. Most species of Baptisia bloom in the spring, usually between March and May, and bloom time typically lasts three to six weeks. This makes them particularly useful to cut-flower growers, as they tend to bloom during the “May Gap” between the early spring bulbs and tender annuals. The flower spikes can be 12 to 24 inches tall and hold the pea-like flowers down the length of the stem, creating a beautiful spike component to bouquets. And flowers also have a great vase life of 7-8 days. I am growing five varieties of Baptisia on the farm, including Pink Truffles, Vanilla Cream, Plum Rosy, Lemon Meringue, and of course, the blue Baptisia australis. There seems to be no limit to the color variations now offered at plant nurseries.
However, the flowers aren’t the only attractive component that Baptisia offers. The foliage is also magnificent both in the landscape and in bouquets. It is incredible in form, color, shape, and vase life. I use it all season long. And in the fall, Baptisia offers those excellent seed pods that add whimsy and texture to fresh and dried bouquets. So, from one low-maintenance perennial, I get flowers, foliage, and seed pods for season-long use. It is a workhorse in any cutting garden and certainly here on the farm.
And if all the reasons stated above aren’t enough to make you fall in love with Baptisia, let me add one more. Baptisia are excellent pollinator plants! Bees adore them, and they are host plants for several butterfly species, including the clouded sulphur, eastern-tailed blue, orange sulphur, frosted elfin, hoary edge, jaguar flower moth, and wild indigo duskywing.
So, if you are looking for a low-maintenance perennial that provides season-long interest, flowers for your home, and is beneficial to pollinators, look no further than Baptisia. They are appropriate in all garden types, including traditional, cottage, contemporary, and native, and they contrast nicely with most flowering perennials and grasses. I can’t think of any drawbacks to growing these beautiful plants! I look forward to seeing them each growing season, and they will always have a place here on the farm. If you grow them, you will love them.
Sources: Baptisia, Growing Baptisia,