If you panicked and just remembered that today is Mother’s Day, you probably bought a florist hydrangea with its bowling ball-sized pink or blue flowers and colorful foil wrapping. Fine, but doesn’t Mom deserve more than this impulse purchase? Next year, consider giving her a false or wild indigo (Baptisia [pronounced bap-TIZZ-ee-uh]). For years I’ve written and spoken about this easy-to-grow and enjoy herbaceous perennial that blooms reliably every year during Mother’s Day.
False indigo is a native American perennial comprised of 15 species and several naturally occurring hybrids that offer a range of flower and leaf colors. Many years ago native Americans and early settlers relied on false indigo to create colorful yellow, brown, and green dyes. In fact, the scientific name is derived from the Greek word, bapto, which means “to dip” or “immerse.” Indigo, a highly sought after and rare color among natural dyes, was actually extracted from the leaves and stems of the yellow-flowered Baptisia tinctoria.
For years false indigo wallowed in obscurity, which surprised me. Depending on the species and cultivar, false indigo flowers come in deep blue to yellow (B. tinctoria) or creamy-white (B. bracteata). At this time of year tall spikes of pealike flowers rise above the three-lobed leaves to provide a three- to four-week long display. Eventually 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. When planted in a well-drained location in full sun, expect false indigo to reach a height and spread of 3 to 4 feet by the end of the season.
Besides its leaves and flowers, I love Baptisia for its drought tolerance 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 wild 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 asaparaguslike shoots that bloomed magnificently.
An added bonus to growing false indigo are the flowers that provide sustenance to bumblebees and leaves that feed the larvae of a variety of butterflies that include wild indigo duskywing, frosted elfin, eastern tailed-blue, silver-spotted skipper, and sulphurs.
In 2010 false indigo was recognized as a rising star when blue false indigo () was selected as 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 native species growing 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.’
It’s not too late to get Mom a false indigo and a nice card with these words: “Mom, you remind me of false indigo. You’re tough, durable, and beautiful.”
Well, you may not want to use those exact words. But you can’t go wrong by calling Mom and false indigo “beautiful.” Happy Mother’s Day!
Bob Polomski © 2017