False indigo rings true as perennial of the year

False indigo rings true as perennial of the year

by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

When I started gardening more than 20 years ago, you never saw false indigo in the garden center and only rarely in mail-order catalogs. After all, it was a native perennial and this was before North American flora was considered to be good garden plants.

Nowadays, you can find the species (Baptisia australis) and about a half dozen quality hybrids in garden centers and most catalogs. In fact, as the 2010 Perennial Plant of the Year, false indigo has hit the big time.

Every year, members of the Perennial Plant Association select a perennial to honor based on its adaptability, low maintenance, disease resistance, overall availability and the ease of propagation. Members include growers, educators, propagators, professional gardeners and landscapers among others. Previous winners include May Night Salvia and "Moonbeam" Coreopsis.

Although indigenous to the Eastern United States, false indigo does well throughout the country in USDA Zones 3-10. It's easy to grow, extremely drought tolerant and doesn't seem to be bothered by disease or insect damage.

The species has deep blue, pea-like flowers on tall stalks for about a month to six weeks in late spring and early summer. At maturity, the plant will be about 3 feet tall and wide. When blooming, the flowers raise the height to about 4 feet.

False indigo does best with eight or more hours of direct sun. It tolerates light shade, but it may produce fewer flowers. Plant in well-drained soil in the middle or toward the back of the perennial bed. False indigo develops an extensive root system, making it difficult to transplant once established.

After the flowers have faded, long charcoal or black seedpods emerge, extending the interest of the perennial in the garden. Like its flowers, false indigo's seedpods can be cut for indoor arrangements. The stalks of pods were used as toys by some Native Americans. The Cherokees used the plant as a blue dye, a practice that gave it the common name, false indigo.

Most false indigos have lovely blue-green slightly oval leaves, which make a good backdrop for later blooming perennials, such as coneflowers (Echinacea), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) and stonecrop or live-forever. These perennials also soften and camouflage false indigo's shrubby base.

American growers have developed some gorgeous hybrids of the native species, which is spectacular in its own right. Among my favorites of the new introductions is the Prairieblues series from the Chicago Botanic Garden and Chicagoland Grows, such as "Purple Smoke," which has a smoky blue flower, and "Twilite," which has magenta flowers tinged in yellow. "Carolina Moonlight" introduced by the North Carolina Botanical Garden, has yellow flowers.

Sometimes known as the Hoosier Gardener, Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp lives in Indianapolis and is part owner and editor of Indiana Living Green magazine. Her work has also appeared in many other publications, including The American Gardener, Garden Gate and Greenhouse Grower. In addition, Meyers Sharp speaks about gardening and sustainable living throughout the Midwest and is a director of the Garden Writers Association.

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