Baptisia is our May Plant of the Month. May is a month of beautiful flowers, of trees, shrubs, and perennials in the central Great Plains and Midwest. Our gardens are loaded with many wonderful blooming plants. So why choose baptisia over all the others?
Also known as blue false indigo or wild indigo, this native perennial is one of the most popular perennials in gardens across the United States. There are 15 species, all native to North America, and 3 major species, which are found across the Great Plains and Midwest regions. With breeding programs, there are many new cultivars available in the nursery.
What is so great about wild indigo?
There are plenty of reasons to like baptisia, or wild indigo. Let us discuss each one for better understanding.
- Lots of variety
- Host plant for butterflies and moths
- Attracts many pollinators
- Easy to maintain
- Great for floral arrangements
1. Lots of variety with baptisia
Thanks to the work of various plant breeding programs across the United States and Europe, we have a plethora of cultivars to choose from. Couple that with research from botanical gardens like the Mt. Cuba Center and gardeners like you and me, and we can easily pick out a variety for each of us.
I love baptisia, and have personally planted 3 species and 8 cultivars among the gardens of my home. So far, this does not seem like nearly enough to me, with all the above benefits making the choice easy. Color choice among baptisia is almost as great as it is with coneflower, though little compared to daylilies.
The top 8 of the following list are the ones in my garden, though I would recommend any of them.
- ‘Cherries Jubilee‘ – maroon to orange-red flowers
- ‘Lunar Eclipse‘ – flowers are purple on bottom and white on top of floral spike
- ‘Pink Lemonade’ – perhaps the most striking of all multi-colors, yellow near the top, pink in the middle, almost chocolate on bottom
- ‘Lemon Meringue‘ – best yellow flowered cultivar
- ‘Twilite‘ – this was my first ever planting, dark purple-brown flowers
- ‘Sparkling Sapphires‘ – very nice blue-purple flowers
- ‘Purple Smoke’ – a light, dusty, smoky blue-purple, one of the oldest cultivars available
- ‘Solar Eclipse’ – yellow that fades to reddish-brown
- ‘Ivory Towers’ – best white flowering in Mt. Cuba Center’s trial
- ‘Crème de Menthe’ – another striking white flower, with very dark stem color
- ‘Pink Truffles’ – light pink fading to purple
- ‘Grape Taffy’ – very dark purple flower
- ‘Dark Chocolate’ – closest flower color to black, a chocolate brown
2. Baptisias are a host plant for butterflies and moths
Even though some moths, such as the genista broom moth can be quite destructive on the leaves, being a host plant is a benefit. When you are a host plant for pollinators, then you will gain more attention than just be attractive to pollinators. I love looking at my wild indigos to see if they have any caterpillars feeding on the leaves.
Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) that use baptisia for a host plant.
- Silver-spotted Skipper
- Confused Cloudywing Skipper
- Funereal Duskywing
- Wild Indigo Duskywing
- Southern Dogface
- Marine Blue
- Clouded Sulphur
- Orange Sulphur
- Frosted Elfin
- Eastern Tailed Blue
- Genista Broom Moth
3. False indigo attracts pollinators
While unpollinated by the butterflies and moths they support as a host plant, baptisias do attract many native bees and bumblebees to their flowers. Bumblebees are especially attracted to flowers and also have the strength to push their way in to the floral parts. Watching bumblebees pollinate baptisia is a special experience.
4. Baptisia is easy to maintain
Did you know that they produce their own nitrogen, with the help of nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live on the roots? Because of this phenomenon among members of the pea family (Fabaceae), these plants do not need external nitrogen applied.
Also, wild indigo has a deep root system that takes advantage of deep ground moisture, making them very drought tolerant. Being native through the Great Plains also makes them tough enough to survive and thrive in a constantly changing landscape.
Ready for spring or fall cleanup? Once the stems of baptisia have turned brown and dry, they break easily off from the crown of the plant. I usually just knock them over and pick up. Some species of bees and other insects may overwinter in the hollow stems, so instead of burning or composting them, place them in a brush pile. Or, if you check the stems and find no insect entry holes, cut them into 1 foot lengths and stack them for bee use in the garden.
5. Wild indigo is great for floral arrangements
I really came across this by accident. When my wife and I attended her worship service at the family church building, they asked me to be in charge of flowers for the month of May. Instead of going after the commercial flowers of the florist trade, I picked the best looking ones from my own garden.
Baptisia showed itself to be a superior cut flower, lasting over a week in an arrangement at room temperature. And more than 2 weeks when put in and out of cooler between use (at the church building). The flower stalks are long and with all the variety in colors, it is easy to find some that work for arranging.
Companion plants for baptisia
When designing and putting together gardens, I do not recommend using just baptisia. Mix things up a little with native grasses, and other perennials that bloom with and afterwards. The following list has 10 plants whose foliage and flowers pair well with baptisia.
- Switchgrass ‘Northwind‘, ‘Shenandoah‘, ‘Cheyenne Sky’
- Little Bluestem ‘Standing Ovation‘, ‘The Blues’, ‘Carousel’
- Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush‘
- Prairie Blazing Star, Liatris pycnostachya
- Culver’s Root, Veronicastrum virginicum
- Showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa
- Aromatic Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’, ‘October Sky’
- Coneflower ‘Sombrero Series‘, ‘Cheyenne Spirit’, ‘Double Scoop Series’
- Bluestar, Amsonia hubrichtii
- Goldenrod ‘Fireworks‘, ‘Wichita Mountains’
Baptisias are great additions to any garden, but especially to gardens that feature pollinator habitat or prairies. Cut flower gardens are also not complete without at least 3 colors of them. They are easy to care for, easy to maintain, and beautiful.