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Wild or False Indigo

Wild or false indigo (Baptisia species) is the perfect Mother’s Day gift, whether your Mom is a newbie, seasoned green-thumber, or someone who simply enjoys flowers that come back year after year around Mother’s Day. These gorgeous herbaceous perennials are native to the eastern U.S. and comprise 20 species and naturally occurring hybrids that produce spikes of pealike flowers that come in blue, white, yellow, purple, and pink.

For history buffs, the genus Baptisia (pronounced bap-TEASE-ee-uh) derives from the Greek word, bapto, which means “to dip” or “immerse.” It refers to the practice by North Americans and early settlers of extracting yellow, brown, and green dyes from the leaves and stems of wild indigo, notably blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) and other species. Indigo dye was extracted from yellow wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), but it proved to be an inferior source compared to the treasured true indigo (Indigofera species).

For years wild indigo remained an obscure historical relic, its ornamental and ecological contributions undiscovered and underappreciated. How’s that possible? At this time of year wild indigo produces tall spikes of pealike flowers that rise above the gray- to blue-green three-lobed leaves to provide a three- to four-week display of color. The flowers sustain bumblebees and other winged pollinators, and the leaves feed the larvae of a variety of butterflies that include wild indigo duskywing, frosted elfin, eastern tailed-blue, silver-spotted skipper, and sulphurs.

Besides its leaves and flowers, I love Baptisia for its drought tolerance, deer resistance, and sheer ruggedness. It’s a great “starter” plant for new gardeners because false indigo quickly recovers from any mistakes. For example, years ago, my six-year-old son harvested all of the new shoots as they poked through its mulch blanket in mid-April. He thought that if the shoots looked like asparagus, they must be asparagus. I was mortified when I saw him carrying an armful of false indigo shoots in his arms and a beaming smile on his face. (I was also floored by my son’s gustatory interest in asparagus.) No problem. The wild indigo responded by producing more asparagus-like shoots that bloomed magnificently.

When the flowers fade, they give rise to black seed pods that remain for most of the summer. Some folks consider the ripe, charcoal-black seed pods as having ornamental interest. I like the noise the pods make when I shake them, which reminds me of a baby rattle.

Wild indigo flowers best in a well-drained location in full sun. Give this plant plenty of elbow room. Depending on the cultivar or hybrid, it can grow up to 3 or 4 feet high and wide by the end of the season.

I am not the only devotee of false indigo. In 2010 blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) was designated the Perennial Plant of the Year™ by the Perennial Plant Association. Although its specific epithet, australis, is Latin for “southern,” it happens to be one of the most adaptable of the species which grows across a range of USDA cold hardiness zones.

As a result of its growing popularity, from 2012 to 2015 the Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware conducted a trial of 46 different selections from 11 different Baptisia species and cultivars. For the mid-Atlantic region (USDA hardiness zone 7a/7b) the Mt. Cuba Center recommended these top 10 cultivars for their garden worthiness: ‘Screamin’ Yellow,’ ‘Lemon Meringue,’ ‘Ivory Towers,’ ‘Blue Towers,’ ‘Purple Smoke,’ ‘Cherries Jubilee,’ ‘Sunny Morning,’ ‘Blueberry Sundae,’ ‘Dutch Chocolate,’ and ‘Crème de Menthe.’ For color photos and performance ratings of all of the false indigos, see http://mtcubacenter.org/trials/baptisia/. Also see HGIC 1184. Baptisia (False or Wild Indigo) for additional information on species, cultivars, and hybrids suitable for South Carolina.

So this Mother’s Day, give Mom a wild indigo and tell her, “Mom, like this Baptisia, you’re tough, durable, and beautiful.”

Well, you may not want to say those exact words. But you can’t go wrong by calling Mom and false indigo beautiful. Happy Mother’s Day

Over a two- or three week-period the individual, pealike flowers of wild indigo open starting from the base of the stalk and ending at the tip. Bob Polomski, ©2014, Clemson University

Over a two- or three week-period the individual, pealike flowers of wild indigo open starting from the base of the stalk and ending at the tip.
Bob Polomski, ©2014, Clemson University

When cultivated in groups or en masse, the showy flowering spikes of wild indigo attract people and pollinators alike. Bob Polomski, ©2014, Clemson University

When cultivated in groups or en masse, the showy flowering spikes of wild indigo attract people and pollinators alike.
Bob Polomski, ©2014, Clemson University

Screamin’ Yellow wild indigo bears shorter flower stalks than other selections, but it makes up for it with its sheer number of bright yellow flowers. Bob Polomski, ©2015, Clemson University

Screamin’ Yellow wild indigo bears shorter flower stalks than other selections, but it makes up for it with its sheer number of bright yellow flowers.
Bob Polomski, ©2015, Clemson University

When grown as a specimen or en masse, ‘Screamin’ Yellow’ (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) becomes a compact, 3 ft. high and 5 ft. wide rounded mound that produces a dazzling display of bright yellow flowers that complement its blue-green leaves. Bob Polomski, ©2015, Clemson University

When grown as a specimen or en masse, ‘Screamin’ Yellow’ (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) becomes a compact, 3 ft. high and 5 ft. wide rounded mound that produces a dazzling display of bright yellow flowers that complement its blue-green leaves.
Bob Polomski, ©2015, Clemson University

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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