Plant Profile: Baptisia australis (Prairie False Indigo)

In just a couple of weeks, a decade will have passed since we first put the offer down on our current home. It was Valentine’s Day weekend, in the waning weeks of a Central Illinois winter. The house itself delighted us, but I was particularly moved by the potential of the landscape. The previous owner hadn’t settled for the cookie cutter suburban landscape, using instead many native species and plants that would attract birds and other wildlife to the yard.

A few weeks after our offer was finalized and accepted, the previous owner graciously provided us a detailed tour of the yard, noting names and qualities of many of the plants she had grown for her five years as the property’s caretaker.

She went on and on about a plant located on the southwest corner of the deck that she called “false indigo” and I had never seen or heard of before. Her enthusiasm was enough to cause me great intrigue as we moved in later that spring. Now, ten years later, I share her love of this plant I now know as Baptisia australis. When the spring and summer conditions are right, it is without compare my favorite plant in the garden.

In late April, the bright green shoots break winter dormancy and emerge from the soil. At this point, Baptisia looks most succulent, as the foliage and stems appear more related to Sedum than its own legume relatives.

Within three to four weeks, usually by the end of May, the plant grows 3-4 feet tall and is covered by racemes of purple to lavender pea-like blooms. The blossoms make excellent, if short-lived, additions to cut flower displays in the late spring.

The flowers that are left on the plant eventually form seed pods that stand in light-green contrast to the now grey-blue hues of the foliage. The seed pods eventually turn black in fall.

In our yard, growing conditions in the spring and summer can severely affect the appearance of the plant. In some years, where there is ample moisture, little wind, and no late frost, the plant will stand nearly five feet tall when covered in flowers. In other less ideal conditions, it can get floppy (as pictured above) and require staking or trimming to maintain its appearance. This has been a more common occurrence of late, perhaps due to the increasing shade in that area of our landscape.

Baptisia (Zones 3-9) grows a deep tap root, making it difficult to dig, so I have never divided the large clump. However, I have successfully transplanted two offshoots that began to grow 9-12 inches away from the central cluster. In two growing seasons, these offshoots have grown into 12-18″ wide, healthy plants of their own. One is tucked in between Miscanthus and a pink-flowering Weigela underneath our bedroom window, and the other makes a complimentary companion to the Clematis jackmanii and Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’ (blue spruce) in our front border.

A number of new varieties (including white and yellow flowered cultivars) are now available on the market, and more will likely appear now that Baptisia australis has been named the 2010 Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association.

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One Comment

  1. I love baptisia, and have missed them in my garden since moving a few years ago. I've tried them here with no success, tried again last summer, this time from seed instead of nursery specimens. I hope my seedlings survive the winter. If they don't I still have a few more seeds to sow.

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