Baptisia australis: perennial plant of the year

Every year, the Perennial Plant Association selects one perennial to be the plant of the year. The perennial selected must be suitable for a wide range of climate types, low maintenance, easily propagates, and exhibit multiple seasonal interest. The 2010 perennial of the year is Baptisia australis or Blue False Indigo, which is a showy native species typically found in prairies, meadows, stream banks, and in open woodlands.

This popular perennial blooms in mid- to late-spring by sending up foot long spires of intense indigo blue flowers. After the flowers fade, the plant still maintains interest in the garden with its trifoliate, soft blue-green foliage and shrub-like form. And, as long as the bees do their job, puffy green seed pods emerge everywhere there was a flower. These seed pods turn a charcoal black when they ripen in the late summer and remain on the plant well into the winter, providing much sought after winter interest in the landscape.

Baptisia australis is very easy to grow and requires little maintenance if sited properly. It grows best in full sun, but will tolerate light shade. If it is planted in too much shade, it may not flower and may require staking. Average to poor soil is suitable, as long as it is well-drained. Once established, Baptisia is drought tolerant due to its tough, deep tap root. No serious pests or diseases are known to afflict this plant.

Because of its commanding size, this shrub-like perennial makes a beautiful specimen on its own or in small groupings. It is commonly used as a backdrop in perennial borders, but also works well in native or meadow plantings. Deer usually do not bother Baptisia, and it attracts butterflies.

Because I like facts, one of the things I like most about Baptisia is the plants history. Early Americans used this plant as a substitute for true indigo, which grows in the West Indies and was used to make blue dye. In fact, Baptisia was the first agricultural crop ever to be subsidized in America!

Anne Lenox Barlow is the horticulture educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. CCE offices may be reached in Clinton County at 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; and Franklin County, 483-7403. E-mail your questions to askMG@cornell.edu.

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