A love affair with tolerant, beautiful baptisia


Every couple of years I fall in love with a plant and collect as many as I can squeeze into our garden. I break up with many of them — coneflowers and daylilies come to mind — although iris and I still have a warm relationship. These days, though, my plant love is for baptisia. Mine began blooming here this weekend.

Baptisia is a group of North American natives common in the East and Midwest of the United States. The first in our garden was the only one readily available in nurseries 25 years ago — Baptisia australis. It’s a large perennial, more than 4 feet tall and wide, that produces long stems filled with bright blue, pea-like flowers in June.

Although my original plants aren’t native, there are Wisconsin baptisia. White-flowered Baptisia alba (also listed as leaucantha) and yellow-flowered Baptisia tinctoria would be right at home in local native plant collections.

Baptisia has gained popularity in recent years. Dr. James Ault at the Chicago Botanic Garden set up a baptisia breeding program that’s produced hybrids with novel colors and larger flowers than the natives as well as more compact plants for today’s smaller gardens.

I planted one of the first Chicagoland Grows plants, ‘Midnight Prairieblue,’ in our back garden the first year it was available. It has finer foliage than my original plants and dusty mauve flowers. It’s a perfect plant for the bed that borders our driveway since, like all baptisia, it dies back to the ground after frost. Piling snow on the bed doesn’t bother the plant at all.

New baptisia hybrids have flooded the market in recent years, and I’ve collected many of them. ‘Carolina Moonlight’ is a large plant, over 4 feet tall and wide with tall spikes of butter yellow flowers. ‘Pink Truffles’ and ‘Cherries Jubilee’ are both a little smaller at about 3 feet. Cherries has bicolored flowers, rusty red with yellow tips. ‘Lunar Eclipse’ is the latest entry at this size. Its flowers open white and flush blue as they mature. I’m not sure yet how I feel about this one. It isn’t making the impact I’d hoped for, but it’s still small so maybe I’ll change my mind as it grows.

If a smaller plant is needed there are several more compact baptisia. ‘Solar Flare’ has vivid yellow flower spikes and only grows 24 inches tall in our garden. Blue-flowered B. australis var. minor is even smaller at 15 inches.

These aren’t fussy plants, but they may take a long time to establish. Baptisia set deep roots, up to 20 feet in some conditions, so it may take a few years for a plant to bloom. They aren’t fussy about soil but need at least six hours of sun a day to flower well.

Baptisia are unappealing to rabbits and deer and are salt tolerant. They’re ideal for locations next to driveways and sidewalks where salty snow may damage other shrubs and evergreens.

Bumblebees fertilize baptisia blossoms, and some skipper and moth caterpillars feed on its leaves. After the flowers are spent, baptisia remain neat, green shrubs until frost. I put supports on mine as soon as their asparagus-like stems pop out of the soil since they can sprawl late in the season in our crowded beds.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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