May is the floral explosion month with roses, iris, clematis, and baptisia, all coming into flower. The work of general weeding turns to staking and deadheading with the occasional smile of admiration. A key player in this glorious gush of beauty is the native perennial baptisia. A plant with few, if any faults, save that it can occupy a largish footprint, but recent breeding has brought us more compact hybrids as well as differently colored flowers.
A member of the bean family, related to the redbud tree, locust tree, and lupine, the flowers are similar with their beak-like shape, and all can be eaten, tossed into a salad. As the shoots rise in spring, they resemble asparagus shoots, the flowers are held in racemes or tight conical heads. Native to most of the southeast and Midwest, there are about seventeen species found growing in poor soils, dry woodland settings, sand, and gravel.
Flower color in the species is primarily yellow with some glorious white species and the most common – Baptisia australis with its blue-purple flowers. Numerous plant breeders have spent years breeding for alternatives in flower color and plant habit with flowers that rise well above the foliage. Before the surge inbreeding, the species Baptisia minor was used as a dwarf option, but shy to flower, the May show was always erratic.
The favored white species Baptisia alba is handsome even as it rises from the ground with black stems. Much has been done with this species, and we now have ‘Vanilla Cream’ and ‘Ivory Towers.’ Bicolored hybrids are amazing and have brought us shades of pink, blue and white, and odd shades of orange/brown with yellow.
To grow baptisia well, the sun is essential. Southern or western exposure is best with soil that is not overly rich. Shade and fertile soil will cause plants to become floppy. Foliage is very handsome, almost eucalyptus-like. The genista broom moth can defoliate a plant, eating the leaf. A pest of warmer climates, in years with warmish winters it can be a problem in Virginia.
Companion plants are numerous, peonies and iris are the simple answer. Penstemon, Amsonia, and salvia offer three other natives to include.
The seed heads are described as inflated or bloated. Some think they are pretty, and they do rattle as seeds mature. The species Baptisia sphaerocarpa has round seed heads, as the name implies; sphaero for round and carpa – seed head. I deadhead them to discourage seedlings, of which there are not many.
If you are not familiar with this gem of a perennial, I encourage you to take a gander. They form a deep taproot and are difficult to split or remove when mature, so plan before you plant. Baptisia australis can be five feet wide and a bit taller than four feet. But there are choices, many lovely options.