Baptisias boast racemes of beautiful pea-like flowers in late spring and early summer, their foliage is attractive all season long and they’re butterfly magnets, yet they remained relatively unknown to most Canadian gardeners until recently, perhaps because they never really caught on in Britain (125 years ago, revolutionary Victorian gardener William Robinson declared “their value is not high”). But that’s all poised to change.
The genus contains about 20 species, all of which are native to North America, and because wild populations interbreed with one another, interspecific hybrids are common. In addition to the widely available blue (Baptisia australis) and white (B. alba) forms, several other varieties have been used to develop a new race that has larger, more vivid flowers, and is faster to establish in home gardens.
It’s fitting that much of the breeding work and plant selection has occurred in North Carolina, as blue false indigo was widely grown in Georgia and the Carolinas in the 18th century as a substitute for West Indian dyer’s indigo (Indigofera tinctoria)—hence its common name, and the plentiful uncultivated populations in the region.
- All baptisias are long-lived perennials that resent being disturbed; give them a sunny site in average garden soil and leave them alone.
- Water during prolonged dry spells, until plants are well established.
- Mature specimens may be divided with a sharp, clean spade every five years in early spring.
- Baptisia species have few pest or disease problems, although discriminating voles relish their roots.