Wild Blue: The Beauty of Baptisia…

The Beauty of North American Native Plants: Wild Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis) & Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus) in My Garden. This Flowering Combo is Backed Up by “Nativars” (Native Plant Cultivars): Juniperus virginiana ‘Grey Owl’ & Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’

In my work as garden designer, I often find myself doing overtime as PR agent for native plants. Many North American wildflowers make beautiful additions to the garden, and yet the natives continue to struggle with “weedy” and “seedy” reputations. Of course, not all wild things are suitable for domesticated gardens and perennial borders, but some are quite sensational. When I encounter resistance, I like to pull out a few show-stopping design combos —like the one pictured above— to convince my more dubious clients. Baptisia —sometimes called false indigo or wild indigo— is such a beautiful and well-known perennial that I frequently need to remind even experienced gardeners that it is actually a North American native plant.

Wild Blue Indio and Goat’s Beard Together Again, in Another Garden Room, with North American Native, Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

There are many beautiful species within the Baptisia genus; including some magnificent natural hybrids. The most familiar of the group, Baptisia australis (Wild Blue Indigo or Blue False Indigo), is a long-standing favorite among perennial gardeners. Hardy in USDA zones 4-9, Wild Indigo is an easy-to-please, long-lived beauty. Baptisia australis and cultivars (B. australis ‘Purple Smoke’ is one of my favorites) all prefer full to partial sun and deep, moist, well-drained soil. However, I’ve used Wild Blue Indigo in semi-shade and drier sites with great success. Although it isn’t a fast-growing plant, in ideal conditions, Baptisia australis will reach 3-4′ in height, with about a 3′ spread within 3 or 4 years. Do plan well and give it plenty of space; due to its deep root system, it resents transplanting (but is easily propagated, and freely self-sows from seed). The violet blue flowers bloom in June here in Vermont, and they combine well with many other garden plants; including perennial classics like herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora), fellow June-blooming natives like the Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus) pictured above, and woody plants such as dark-maroon-leafed Ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’ (a “nativar”, or native plant cultivar). After blooming, the grey-green foliage adds both color and texture to the garden, and later in summer, blackened seed pods add autumn-garden interest.

In the garden, Baptisia australis —and other species within the genus— is an important native plant for pollinators; including butterflies, bumblebees and other native bees. Although I leave most of the flowers standing in my perennial borders, I grow more than enough to enjoy some spiky blue-violet blossoms indoors as well. Wild Blue Indigo is also one of my favorite cut-flowers; a long lasting, mood-beauty for the vase…

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3 Replies to “Wild Blue: The Beauty of Baptisia…”

  1. virginia wyoming

    I’ll have to give the baptisia another try. I’ve never had luck with it. My Aruncus is, however, monumental. I’ll try the baptisia in the same locale. Thanks so much for the pictures.

  2. John

    I planted two blue smoke baptisias in my garden next to each other several years ago. By the second year, there was one healthy plant, which grows to a 3 x 4 foot not-unruly bush each season now. I don’t know why the second plant did not thrive. They are fun to watch in early spring, when the early stalks look a lot like asparagus spears.

    Is your goat’s beard roughly the same size plant as the false indigo? I would have never thought to pair them but they look great together.

  3. Michaela

    Hi John, I’m curious about why your one Baptisia failed, while the other thrived. But I’m glad you came away with something as ‘Blue Smoke’ is indeed a gorgeous cultivar (use that one frequently in my designs, but don’t have one here at home (yet).

    Aruncus dioicus cultivars can vary in size quite a bit, but I tend to use the species, and given the right conditions it will reach 4.5 to 5′, with a similar spread. One of my favorite ways to use and combine the two is in a semi-shaded, corner garden; Aruncus as backdrop with a pair of Baptisia forward of it, creating a triangle. This works great for beneath eves in New England, where shrubs are impossible. As you know, the Baptisia forms a very nice mound; particularly when the flowers are cut back. Much like a shrub border, the two plants together create a shapely frame for more extensive forward plantings.
    The smaller Aruncus cultivars work well beside or even to the front of Baptisia, if they are low enough. I love both plants and really should post something more about Aruncus.
    Enjoy the Blue Smoke in your garden, John!

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