We need to have a serious chat, gardeners. I want to know why you aren’t yet growing baptisia in your gardens. You don’t know what baptisia is? I can help you with that. Once you’ve seen a well-grown plant, sporting its tall, elegant spikes of flowers in shades of purple, blue, yellow and other hues, you’ll want it for your own garden.
Baptisia is a perennial, is native to much of North America and is related to lupins, peas, beans, vetch, clovers and broom. The common name for it is false indigo, but more and more people are referring to it by its genus name, because it’s rather a charming one and isn’t hard to say or spell, unlike, say, Chamaepericlymenum canadense, which is an alternative botanical name for bunchberry. I’m all about using botanical names whenever possible, so baptisia it is.
Pollinators of all sorts are attracted to baptisia, which is, in itself, reason enough to include it in perennial beds. Unlike its lupin relatives, baptisia is unbothered by aphids, and it’s also not generally sampled by deer — bearing in mind, of course, that hungry deer will try almost anything.
It forms a handsome clump of glossy, blue-green foliage, and spikes of colourful flowers in late May into June, and looks rather like a small- or medium-sized shrub when it’s not in bloom. You want to give it space, because it will not like to be crowded, and I’ve heard of people who plant the main species as a sort of hedge or backdrop plant near the back of a border. There are shorter, more compact cultivars available now, too, and I’ll say more about them in a bit.
A little planning is essential when you’re going to add baptisia to your garden. Plant in full sun for the best growth and flowering, but also plant it where you want it to stay, because it doesn’t like to be moved or divided. It’s a drought-resistant perennial, with a deep taproot system, so it is tolerant of dry conditions after it is established — remember to regularly water all new perennials, shrubs and trees the first year of planting, especially if it’s a dry year. I also suggest marking where you plant your new acquisition, so that in the spring you don’t dig around it and damage the crown, which can result in fewer new shoots and flowers.
Baptisia is a slow-to-establish perennial, especially if you buy a small plant. It may take a few years to get it to blooming size. I remember the first one I planted. I was patient with for the first three seasons. The fourth season, I placed my shovel beside the plant and told it to either bloom or become compost. It bloomed, with great enthusiasm, that year and every year following. Today, nurseries often sell plants that are several years old, so they’ll either be in bloom when you purchase them or will bloom soon afterwards. These plants may be a little more expensive than small ones, but for the impatient gardener, they’re well worth the investment.
Like many of their relatives, baptisias form seedheads, which you can leave on the plant because they’re quite attractive as the season goes on. They are not edible, so don’t harvest them to add to your edamame and kale salad.
The most common colour available for baptisias used to be blue, hence the name blue wild indigo. However, there are also species with white or brilliant yellow flowers, both of which are equally delightful. And, of course, plant breeders have eagerly embraced hybridizing them, resulting in new colours and colour blends in the past few years. Among the cultivars in my garden are Twilite Prairieblues, which has deep purple flowers marked with yellow, and Solar Flare, which is very yellow. From the Decadence series, there is Vanilla Cream, which has pale yellow to cream flowers; Dutch Chocolate, with chocolate-purple flowers; and Cherries Jubilee, which has yellow-deep red flowers that gradually fade to a gold hue. There’s a new variety this year, Pink Truffles, which I haven’t yet acquired and which produces rosy pink flowers that fade to lavender. It’s on my must-have list. And now, hopefully, you’ll want to add a baptisia or two or four to your garden, too.
A little housekeeping to remind you about. Plant sales are happening around the province, as garden clubs and other organizations use them as a source of fundraising, and sharing and swapping of plants. For hardcore gardeners who are always searching out the newest or the most unusual, don’t forget that the Rare and Unusual Horticultural Weekend is next weekend, May 21 and 22, in Annapolis Royal.
On Saturday, May 21, from 12:30 to 5 p.m., you can take in several great seminars at the Annapolis Royal Fire Hall. The keynote seminar is by Bob Osborne of Corn Hill Nursery, talking about the genus Rosaceae. Iain Jack of Fernwood Plant Nursery is giving a seminar on ferns and their many uses in the garden. And garden designer Nina Newington is presenting on the marvels of Tangled Garden.
On Sunday, May 22, join us from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Farmers Market for the annual Rare and Unusual plant sale, featuring over 17 specialty plant vendors from around the region. This event is extremely popular and you’re pretty much guaranteed to find all kinds of treasures. It’s recommended that you bring cash, because some vendors do not have a means to process cards. I will be there representing Baldwin’s Nursery in Falmouth, and I really want you to buy all Rob’s plants so I can fill the car up with my own purchases.
For information and to register, visit ACRAUPS.org.