Thursday, February 15, 2018

Baptisia: How to Grow It + Newly Introduced Cultivars

One task I am not particularly looking forward to this spring is uprooting and moving a mature False Indigo, Baptisia australis. It's been in the same spot for at least a decade. It's not going to be easy to unearth its deep roots, but sadly it has to be done.

A garden like mine could easily be a full-time job, but the reality is that I have an average of just two to four hours a day to spend on it. When I added a new flowerbed to the backyard last summer, I did it knowing that something else would have to give. There was no way I could manage more garden in the same amount of time.

With a heavy heart, I decided to reduce the size of the front garden in favour of the more private backyard space. So last fall I moved just about everything but ran out of time before I could tackle the biggest job– the Baptisia you see in the picture above.

Spring is a terrible time to move it (it blooms in spring, so the fall would have been a little better), but it's a task that has to be finished.

Baptisia australis is a magnificent plant that demands very little. Fingers crossed I don't kill it!

Native Baptisia australis was used to produce a blue dye by Native Americans.

Baptisia australis is a native plant that can be found in woods, tickets and along stream banks in an area that stretches from southern Pennsylvania to North Carolina and Tennessee. It has purply-blue flower spikes and bluish-green leaves that make me think of peas or clover (it is a member of the pea family). Spent flowers become long, rounded seedpods that age to become deep charcoal.

As well as Baptisia australis, there is native Baptisia alba, which has white flowers and Baptisia tinctoria, which has yellow blooms. Baptisia minor is a smaller plant.

How to Grow Baptisia:

False Indigo, Baptisia australis can be grown in average to quite poor, well-drained soil. It can handle a little bit of light shade, but it would be much happier if you planted it in full sun. When it first emerges in the spring the fresh shoots of Baptisia australis are quite upright. The plant opens up slowly through it's blooming phase and becomes more of a vase shape.

This is a large, long-lived perennial. Think small shrub when you try to place it in the garden (Note: there are a few new cultivars that are more compact in size).

Baptisia requires patience. It grows quite slowly and may take a few years to get really established. As it grows, it develops deep and extensive roots that make moving it very difficult, so choose a spot carefully and stick with it.

The good news is Baptisia is very undemanding and virtually pest-free. I chop mine to the ground in the fall and that's just about all I do.

The reward is a spring showstopper that will be well worth the wait. As it has done in my garden,
Baptisia australis continues to grow and bloom in the same spot for decades.


Baptisia can be grown from seed, but you're in for a long wait. It may take as long as three years to see even a few flowers. I'd recommend investing in a decent sized nursery plant instead.

Once your Baptisia is established you can propagate new plants from stem cuttings in early spring.  I've tried it and it is fairly easy to do. Each cutting needs one set of leaf buds.

Plant type: Perennial

Height & Spread: Depending on the cultivar: 3-5 ft high x 5-6 ft wide

Flower: A range of colors including indigo-blue, yellow, white, pink, purple, lavender, maroon & bi-colors

Bloom period: Early spring

Leaf color:
 Fresh green to grey-green

Light: Full sun

Growing Conditions: Average to poor well-drained soil

Water requirements: Fairly drought tolerant once established

Companion Plants: Blue Star, Salvia, Gas Plant, Peony, Iris

Divide: This is a long-lived perennial that likes to stay put, but it can be divided every 4-5 years.

Notes: Deer resistant & pretty much pest-free.

USDA Zones: 4-9

Baptisia 'Vanilla Cream'. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners® 

Modern Cultivars

If you've haven't heard of Baptisia yet, there's a reason. They mature slowly, so I doubt they are a quick cash crop for growers. 

They're also a bit gangly and awkward in a nursery pot. The flowers on a young potted plant are small and don't exactly scream "buy me!" 

But the popularity this plant is growing and breeders have responded with new and exciting color choices. Here's a quick look at some of the many cultivars now available:

'Purple Smoke' 

'Purple Smoke'  makes a perfect backdrop for this Salvia. The Toronto Botanical Garden in spring.

False Indigo, Baptisia 'Purple Smoke' is a recent introduction from the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Smoky-blue flowers are carried on dark green stems and foliage. Height: 100-135 cm ( 39-53 inches), Spread: 75-90 cm (29-35 inches). USDA Zones: 4-9.

Cultivars with Similar Colors:

Baptisia 'Lunar Eclipse' (not shown) is initially creamy-lemon and ages into a medium to dark violet producing a pretty two-toned effect.
Baptisia 'Starlight Prairieblues' has lavender flowers.

Baptisia 'Pink Truffles'. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners® 

False Indigo, Baptisia Decadence® Deluxe 'Pink Truffles' has soft pink flowers that appear atop a compact clump of deep blue-green foliage. The flowers lighten to lavender with age. This is a smaller sized cultivar. Height: 107-122 cm (42-48 inches), Spread: 152-183 (60-72 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

'Pink Lemonade'. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners® 

False Indigo, Baptisia Decadence® Deluxe 'Pink Lemonade' has soft yellow flowers that age to dusty raspberry-purple showing both colors at the same time. Height: 106-121 cm (42-48 inches), Spread: 116-121 cm (46-48 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

Cultivars with Similar Colors:

Baptisia 'Solar Flare' has two-toned yellow and rusty-orange flowers.

Baptisia 'Vanilla Cream'. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners® 

False Indigo, Baptisia Decadence® Deluxe 'Vanilla Cream' has pastel yellow buds that open into vanilla flowers. The compact foliage emerges bronze in spring and becomes grey-greenThis cultivar was selected for its petite size and unique flowersHeight: 76-90 cm (30-36 inches), Spread: 90-106 cm (36 - 42 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

Baptisia 'Dutch Chocolate'. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners®  

False Indigo, Baptisia Decadence® Deluxe 'Dutch Chocolate' has velvety chocolate-purple flowers above a compact, relatively short mound of deep blue-green foliage. This vigorous cultivar is well-suited to smaller urban gardens. Height: 76-90 cm (30-36 inches), Spread: 90-106 cm (36 - 42 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

Cultivars with Similar Colors:

Baptisia 'Brownie Points' has two-toned yellow and caramel-brown flowers.
Baptisia 'Cherries Jubilee' has two-toned yellow and maroon flowers.
Baptisia 'Twilight Prairieblues' has smoky purple flowers.

'Sparkling Sapphires'. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners®  

False Indigo, Baptisia Decadence® 'Sparkling Sapphires' has deep violet-colored flowers on a compact plant with deep blue-green foliage. Height: 76-90 cm (30-36 inches), Spread: 76-90 cm (30-36 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

Cultivars with Similar Colors:

Baptisia 'Blue Towers' has periwinkle-blue flowers.
Baptisia 'Blueberry Sundae' has deep indigo-blue flowers.
Baptisia 'Indigo Spires' has deep reddish-purple flowers.
Baptisia 'Midnight Prairie blues' has deep purple flowers.

Baptisia 'Lemon Meringue'. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners® 

False Indigo, Baptisia Decadence® Deluxe 'Lemon Meringue' is a vigorous cultivar that has lemon-yellow flowers on a compact, upright mound of blue-green foliage. Height: 76-90 cm (30-36 inches), Spread: 76-90 cm (30-36 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

 Baptisia 'Carolina Moonlight' and a Salvia at its feet. Private garden, Fergus Ontario.

Baptisia 'Carolina Moonlight'  Private garden, Toronto, Ontario.

Yellow False Indigo, Baptisia 'Carolina Moonlight' has blue-green foliage with canary-yellow flowers. Height: 120-135 cm (47-53 inches), Spread: 80-90 cm (31-35 inches). USDA Zones: 4-9.

Note:You can find more information on the Proven Winners® cultivars at

Ideas for Companion Planting:

Plant Baptisia in the company of other spring bloomers including Gas Plant, Dictamnus Albus Blue Star, Amsonia, Bearded Iris, Peony, Catmint, Nepeta and Salvia.

 Yellow and blue Baptisia with pink flowering Phlomis tuberosa 'Amazone'. The Toronto Botanical Garden in spring.

Baptisia and Blue Star, Amsonia in my garden.

Baptisia and pale yellow Bearded Iris. Private garden, Toronto, Ontario.

Yellow Baptisia in the background with Catmint, Salvia and Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa 'Lemony Lace'. Private garden, Toronto, Ontario.

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  1. I miss mine as it was with the Indiana house. I am still planning this garden in Alabama. I can second, it is a long lived beauty once established.

    1. Thanks for sharing your own experience of this plant Brooke.

  2. I understand how you feel Jenifer girl .. I was trying to reduce and organize a sunny strip I have in the back garden .. in the process I destroyed the extra, younger, baptisia australis that popped up there .. I felt awful about it because they really are such gorgeous plants and this extra one ? was a self starter from my older one.
    The plants are staples in a cottagy? garden ... I love the new one Pink Lemonade .. I would really enjoy seeing that smile in my garden. In the mean time I have my ancient standard hanging on for me around my Serviceberry .. it is very pretty there but it is a crowded spot so I have to keep an eye on how things are doing there .. we are constantly making mental notes on what to do next in our gardens eh? Good luck and fingers crossed for you !

    1. Thanks Joy! I could see how you might weed a young plant out by mistake. They are a bit weedy looking in their early days.

  3. Thank you for sharing. I pinned. I will look for these in spring. I love the look of them. Old Fashioned Flowers to me. :-)

    1. They do have an old-fashioned cottage garden charm to them, don't they? After doing this post, I just may have to add one of these new colors.

  4. Beautiful Baptisia - I love them and have several! We moved into a small fixer-upper home in August 2016 with a big fixer-upper yard. Along the sidewalk to the front porch the previous owners had planted 2 Baptisia that had grown very large. One I could work with and one we decided to dig out. I started digging and decided it would require more muscle that I had, so hubby took over and he decided it would require more muscle than he had, then our son took over and he decided it would require more muscle than he had... We never were not able to even budge the sucker. Last summer, I just kept it cut back to no more than 12 inches high, so of course it never bloomed. I say all of that to say, good luck moving your baptisia and no swearing allowed. I will stay tuned...

    1. A cautionary tale! I will no doubt have to do the same thing and employ muscles greater than my own. Hubby and I (mostly hubby) moved the Baptisia's good friend and neighbour– a Blue Star, Amsonia last fall. It is the same kind of plant: long-lived and well rooted into its home. It was a nightmare to dig out!! The Baptisia is bound to be just as difficult. Yes... please stay tuned!

  5. Loved this preview of 18 varieties of Baptisia!!! What about any white varieties?

    1. The native species Baptisia alba is white. Here's one source online and I am sure there are probably more:

  6. This is one of my favorite spring bloomers. It took me a while to find just the right spot in my garden for it to be happy. I love watchin the bumble bees work the blooms! Best of luck getting your Baptisia successfully moved.

  7. This is really a lovely plant, Jennifer!
    I actually think I have some of this (or something really similar) in my perennial garden. I have bookmarked this post, and when we get out from under the snow and ice, and spring plants begin to bloom, I am going to come back to this post and see if this is what is actually in my garden.
    Thank you, Jennifer!


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