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2010 Perennial Plant of the Year

by Martha Smith

Close up of a Baptisia australis blossom.

The Perennial Plant Association (PPA) has announced the Perennial Plant of the Year for 2010. Selected by the PPA membership, the honor goes to Baptisia australis.

Pronounced bap-TEEZ-ee-uh as-STRAH-lis, common names are blue false indigo, wild indigo, and baptisia, but it also can be called indigo weed, rattleweed, and rattlebrush.

This eastern United States native is a member of the Fabaceae family (or what was formerly Leguminosae). The name of the genus Baptisia is derived from the ancient Greek word, bapto, meaning to dip (dye) or immerse, while the specific epithet, australis, is Latin for southern.

Blue false indigo forms an upright habit, 3 to 4 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide. This exceptional perennial is an adaptable species and grows across a wide range of zones. Be patient with Baptisia. When first planted, it looks sparse with only a few stems. By the third summer, the clump will fill out and reach its full size.

This 4-foot, shrub-like perennial should be carefully placed in the landscape. It grows best in full sun but can survive in partial shade. For best appearance, it should be staked if grown in the shade in order to prevent flopping.

It is drought tolerant due to a tap root that does not like to be disturbed once established. Some clumps of Baptisia are 20 years old and have never been divided. This low maintenance quality is another attractive feature.

Spring flowers are violet-blue, lupine like, and form erect 10- to 12-inch racemes. These flower stalks extend well above the trifoliate bluish-green leaves. Blooms grace the garden for three to four weeks. The flowers become attractive charcoal-black inflated seed pods which are often used in flower arrangements. The dried seed pods rattle in the late summer breezes, creating a pleasant sensory attraction.

The early common name rattleweed resulted from children using the seed pods as rattles. The current common name of blue false indigo refers to the use of this perennial by early Americans as a dye—not as strong as the true indigo (genus Indigofera of the West Indies) but a moderate substitute.

The plant has no serious insect or disease problems. A desirable attribute of blue false indigo is that it doesn’t seem to be a favorite of deer. Baptisia is listed to contain several alkaloids, having a bitter taste and making it unpalatable to deer.

Baptisia australis is an excellent choice for the back of the border. Pair it with mid-season peonies and enjoy the floral bouquet they create side by side. Also consider spring-blooming bulbs to accent the violet-blue flowers. The blue-green foliage offers a summer backdrop for many perennial combinations.

This native beauty really has something to offer all season. If you are looking for a long-lived, low-maintenance, virtually pest-free perennial native, consider Baptisia australis for your landscape this year.


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