I first came across Baptisia australis – Blue False Indigo when I was taking care of the garden at Liberty Hall, a historic home in Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky. This stately and stunningly architectural herbaceous perennial doesn’t need to be in flower to offer something for the landscape.
The indigo blue flowers are held on long stalks above the foliage of the plant, sometimes reaching four or five feet in height, and when in flower, it’s spectacular. They persist for about three weeks, especially if you dead head them, which means removing the spent flowers before they set seed. Doing that, however, would negate a wonderful aspect of this plant.
Back when I was the supervisor of the Haverford College Arboretum, I grew a large mixed garden on the campus right behind the campus’ center building. I had vegetables, flowers, shrubs, trees and vines in an area that was left as a neglected vacant lot after construction of the building. One of the plants I grew there was Baptisia. As a part of my job, I had the great good fortune to lead a few tours of the campus, including one afternoon in August when a group of sight-impaired folks came through. Imagine leading a garden tour of folks who had varying degrees of sight impairment. But, when we passed the Baptisia, one of them brushed against the plant knocking the seed pods into a frenzy of maraca-like joy. They all gathered around the plant, and asked if they could pick some of the pods, for which I gladly gave permission. They each had a seed stalk with a rattle on the end, leaving plenty on the plant for my later seed-gathering. “Now we can find each other,” one of them said, as she shook her plant-based musical instrument. Native to the eastern half of the United States, Baptisia is one of the many members of the Bean family, Fabaceae. The genus name comes from the Greek word, bapto, to dye. It prefers light shade to full sun, a well-drained soil and plenty of room.
It will colonize an area, both by expanding its roots and also by seeding itself in. (Once planted and established, however, it will not enjoy being transplanted.) It is not invasive in my experience, especially if you dead-head them. Once used as an indigo substitute for dyeing, its seeds are poisonous, so don’t be tempted by its family heritage to ingest, and be especially careful if young children are nearby.
The black seed pods, as mentioned earlier, are also a great focal point later in the summer and into fall. Besides the very dominant flower spikes, the blue-green foliage is a wonderful cool accent the rest of the summer. It can be used as an accent plant in the herbaceous border, in cottage gardens, prairies, meadows and native plant gardens. It’s also a wonderful cut flower.
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