Thursday, July 27, 2017

Baptisia - False Indigo

Baptisia is a genus in Fabaceae, which is the same family as peas and peanuts, making it a legume. There are around 30 species and subspecies found throughout North America. Most are found in grasslands, savannahs, and woodland edges. Many species are interfertile and natural hybrids have been found in the wild.

One of the reasons false indigo has become so popular is that they tend to be easy to grow and adaptable. As long as they aren't too wet, most will grow fine in heavy soil. They are also very drought tolerant and perform great in sandy soils. Full sun is best, but most will tolerate light shade.

I've been growing different forms of Baptisia almost as long as I've worked in the horticulture industry, and I've watched their popularity grow over time. That popularity really started to take off in 2010 when B. australis was selected as the PPA Plant of the Year.

Now there are A LOT of Baptisia varieties on the market. None of them are bad, though certainly some are better than others. I'll go through all of the ones I've managed to get pictures of over the years.

Baptisia alba
Baptisia alba
This has long been my favorite species in the genus. It tends to be sturdy, the clean white flowers are held above the foliage on long spikes, and its long stems form a vase-shaped habit. The habit of it being bare at the base allows for good air circulation to lower plants around it. This species has been used in some of the hybrids, passing on traits like long flower spikes and vase-shaped habit.
Baptisia alba

A form of Baptisia alba with shorter flowers and tall habit. This was actually purchased as B. sphaerocarpa, but when it flowered a few years later with white flowers, I knew the real identity. 
Baptisia australis
This is by far the most widely planted species. It has great bluish purple flowers on spikes held just above the foliage. My only complaint about this one is that it is widely seed grown, resulting in inconsistent performance. Plants may be dense and sturdy or they may be loose and floppy. Sadly, there's no good way to know for sure when selecting young plants.
B. australis

Baptisia australis 'Big Ben'
'Big Ben' was selected for its larger flowers and larger habit. I really like this one, but unfortunately it has always been a little lax in my garden, require staking later in the season.
'Big Ben'
'Big Ben'
'Big Ben'

'Big Ben'

A form of B. australis w/ gold foliage. 

Hybrid false indigo started entering the market in the late 1990's with the introduction of 'Purple Smoke' from NC Botanic Garden. It was followed by 'Carolina Moonlight' in 2002, a hybrid of B. sphaerocarpa  and B. alba also from NCBG. These were breakthrough plants as they showed much more vigor and better habit than B. australis. 

 Baptisia 'Purple Smoke'
A classic and vigorous hybrid between B. australis and B. alba discovered in fields of seed stock of B. australis. Smoky purple blooms on long spikes held above the foliage and an upright habit.
'Purple Smoke'

'Purple Smoke'

Jim Ault from Chicago Botanic Garden started hybridizing Baptisia in the late '90s. Jim has used a good range of species in his program, including B. alba, B. australis, B. australis var. minor, B. bracteata, B. bracteata var. leucophea, B. Sphaerocarpa, and B. tinctoria. What I've noticed is that he tends to select full bushy plants with not much open space at the base. Though some are certainly more upright than others. 'Twilite', 'Starlite', 'Solar Flare', 'Midnight', and 'Lunar Eclipse' are available. 'Royal Purple' will be available in 2018. Several others haven't hit the market yet. 

Baptisia 'Twilite'
This hybrid of B. australis and B. sphaerocarpa was the first plant selected for marketing out of Jim's program. It's a monster at nearly 5' tall x 6'+ wide. Flowers are a dark dusky purple on long stems at the top of the foliage. This one is vigorous. Mine was 4'x4' by the third year. 



Baptisia 'Starlite'
The second plant out of the program at Chicago Botanic Garden, a hybrid of B. australis x B. bracteata. This one is also fairly large and vigorous, but slower than 'Twilite'. Expect it to reach 3'x5' with a somewhat arching, but not lax, habit. Flowers are lavender with buttercream keels.

Baptisia 'Blue Mound'
'Blue Mound' is a hybrid B. australis var. minor and B. australis var. australis from Chicago Botanic Garden. The habit is very much like minor: low, broad, and bushy; but it's a bit larger and has larger flower spikes like australis.
B. 'Blue Mound'
Baptisia 'Lavender Rose'
This multi-generational hybrid between B. australis and B. bracteata var. leucophea has buds that start out bright pink and age to rose-lavender. Habit is quite a bit like a good form of B. australis. From Chicago Botanic Garden.
B. 'Lavender Rose'
 Baptisia 'Royal Purple'
A complex hybrid developed from the species Baptisia australis, B. bracteata var. leucophaea, and B. sphaerocarpa. Habit is much like australis, but the flowers are very dark purple.
B. 'Royal Purple'
B. 'Royal Purple'

Baptisia 'Sandstorm'
A second-generation B. australis x B. bracteata var. leucophaea hybrid, 'Sandstorm' is another variety with uniquely colored blooms. Sand colored flowers on long spikes held above the foliage in tremendous profusion. 
B. 'Sandstorm'
B. 'Sandstorm'

Baptisia 'Spilled Buttermilk'
Baptisia australis x leucophaea selection backcrossed to B. leucophaea. I like the thought of this plant: maintaining the unique low habit of B. leucophea but with better vigor and easier to propagate. But the habit appears quite floppy. Possibly worth pursuing this goal but using another plant with better habit, B. australis var. minor maybe.  I'm not sure if we'll see this one on the market. 

Baptisia 'Sunny Morning'
A hybrid of Baptisia sphaerocarpa crossed with Baptisia alba, this one displays numerous long yellow flower spikes. Habit is more bushy than other similar hybrids on the market.

'Sunny Morning'
Tony Avent from Plant Delights Nursery in NC has long had an interest in the genus. They have sold a large number of species selections over the last few decades and have lately been introducing hybrids from their program.

 Baptisia 'Blonde Bombshell'
This is a hybrid betweeen B. sphaerocarpa and B. alba. It has long flower spikes and upright habit and bright yellow flowers. Flower coverage is excellent.

'Blonde Bombshell'

 Baptisia 'Blue Towers'
This variety is a hybrid between B. australis and B. alba. It retains the flower color of australis but has the habit of alba. It's comparable to 'Purple Smoke' but with a more clear flower color.

'Blue Towers'
The vast majority of new Baptisia on the market are bred by Hans Hansen. Hans started his hybridizing program in the 90s in MN and moved it to MI when he went to work for Walter's Gardens. He has utilized a wide range of species resulting in some unique flower colors. Many of his plants have been introduced through the Proven Winners program.

Baptisia 'Cherries Jubilee'
This hybrid between B. sphaerocarpa and B. australis var. minor has reddish flowers with a yellow keel. Habit is upright with flowers held just above the foliage. This is one of his first hybrids to become widely available.
B. 'Cherries Jubilee'
B. 'Cherries Jubilee'

 Baptisia 'Dutch Chocolate'
This hybrid between B. sphaerocarpa and B. australis var. minor has flowers the color of dark chocolate. This is from the same cross as 'Cherries Jubilee'. Habit is more bushy and flowers are held just above the foliage. This is a nice plant up close, but the flowers are so dark they are lost from a distance.
B. 'Dutch Chocolate
B. 'Dutch Chocolate'

Baptisia 'Brownie Points'
This is one of the more unique varieties of Baptisia, having chocolate brown flowers on upright stems and an upright habit. Brown flowers may sound a bit odd, but it's really quite pretty. Before dismissing it, think of all the great color combinations that can be done!

Baptisia 'Brownie Points'
Baptisia 'Brownie Points'

Baptisia 'Blueberry Sundae'
Like 'Blue Mound', this is a hybrid between minor and australis. The habit is quite a bit more upright, larger, and it blooms slightly later.
'Blueberry Sundae'

 Baptisia 'Lemon Meringue'
A hybrid between B. sphaerocarpa and B. alba. Long lemon-yellow flower spikes and upright habit.
B. 'Lemon Meringue'
Baptisia 'Vanilla Cream'
This variety resulted from open pollinated seed from a trial bed of many species. Cream-colored spikes are held just above the foliage.

Roy Klehm, owner of Klehm's Songsparrow Farms, has recently introduced a few Baptisia to the market. I'm not sure of their origin, but I expect they are from open pollinated seedlings of various hybrids.

Baptisia 'Cinnamon Toast'
This variety is from Roy Klehm and appears to be a hybrid of unkown parentage. Flower buds are dark cinnamon colored opening to "toast" colored flowers. It's really much prettier than it sounds. 
B. 'Cinnamon toast'

Baptisia 'Strike It Rich' 
A yellow hybrid of unknown origin. A dense mound with flowers just above the foliage. Good flower production, but somewhat short spikes. Should reach 4'x4'. 

Baptisia has been part of my gardening and professional life so long that it's hard to imagine gardening without them. I've thought about hybridizing with them, and may do so some day, but there are so many good ones on the market now that I'm not sure it's necessary. I do have one selection I may introduce. It's an open pollinated seedling of 'Purple Smoke' with the same smokey coloration over a lavender-pink flower rather than lavender-purple.
'Purple Smoke' seedling with 'Purple Smoke' in the background

'Purple Smoke' seedling
'Purple Smoke' seedling


  1. Sigh...I wish I had room for them my next garden, right!

    1. LOL Scott, do you have room for ANY? :) You need to get out of the city! Our next property should be 5+ acres, I should have room for a bunch of them.

    2. Ha...I have exactly ONE and, yes, it's honestly too big for the space...but I still love it ;-)

    3. Haha I'm pretty sure a miniature sedum would be too big for your space these days. Sucks for us nursery people that you're out of room. ;)


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