No flower fills your garden with brilliant true blue flowers like blue False Indigo. False Indigo (Baptisia australis) is a native American beauty. In fact, Europeans used to pay Americans to grow this plant, for the dye they made from the blue flowers. True indigo was expensive and Baptisia, which made a similarly colored dye, grew like a weed. That's why it's called False Indigo.
False Indigo is a member of the pea family and you will notice the resemblance in its foliage and flowers, as well as its fondness for cooler weather. Baptisia australis is a standout because of its striking blue flowers. There are also newer hybrids of Baptisia with yellow and purple flowers.
False Indigo has an upright, shrubby form. It offers a long season of interest, with colorful flower spikes, unusual seed pods, and foliage that is almost never bothered by pests or disease.
- Leaves: Clover-like trifoliate leaves have a blue-green coloring.
- Flowers: Pea-like blossoms start as plump, tight buds. The flowers are borne on long racemes and are a vivid blue, often with flecks of cream or yellow. They are followed by seed pods which further demonstrate they are a member of the pea family. The pods persist and turn black and are often used in flower arranging.
Blue Wild Indigo, False Indigo
Although in most areas it dies back to the ground in winter, Baptisia grows like a small shrub, reaching four to five feet tall and three to four feet wide.
Your Baptisia plant will bloom from late spring through early summer. If you do not deadhead the flowers, you will get attractive seed pods similar to pea pods, which turn dark and rattle in the breeze.
- "Purple Smoke" (Baptisia x "Purple Smoke"): A hybrid with a purple eye in the center of the blue flowers.
- "Twilite Prairieblues" (Baptisia × varicolor "Twilite Prairieblues"): A trademarked cross between B. australis and the yellow Baptisia sphaerocarpa, making purple flowers tinged with buttery yellow.
- "White Wild Indigo" (Baptisia alba): A similar plant, with white flowers set against dark stems.
Using in Your Garden Design
False Indigo blends beautifully with pastel, late spring bloomers, like peonies, as well as with shocking colors. Spiky plants, like iris, salvia, and tall alliums, complement both the color and the texture of Baptisia. The blue blossoms really bring out the chartreuse of Lady’s Mantle.
Since it is a large plant and it only blooms once, be sure to put it somewhere in your garden where its foliage will continue to offer interest. Snuggling it between other plants will prevent the branches from falling open under the weight of the flowers and seed pods.
Soil: False indigo prefers drier, well-draining soils. It is not particular about soil pH but does best in a soil that is neutral to slightly acidic.
Planting False Indigo: You can start Baptisia plants from seed, but they are slow to establish and it will probably be three years before you see flowers. Even a young false indigo plant will take at least two years to get established before you really start seeing it bloom. On the plus side, they are very long-lived.
False Indigo seeds have a hard outer coating. If you do decide to try growing them from seed, some type of scarification will improve germination. Soaking them in hot water for at least eight hours prior to scarifying them would be even better, although, some gardeners have luck simply planting the seeds in the fall and allowing the winter weather to soften the seed coat.
Caring for Your Plants
False Indigo requires very little maintenance. Keep it watered regularly for the first year. Once established, Baptisia is very drought-tolerant.
You can leave the spent flowers and enjoy the seed heads. The pods are attractive and jingle in the wind. However, they can make the plants top-heavy and prone to splitting open in the center, especially plants grown in partial shade. You can prevent this by giving your False Indigo a modest shearing after flowering.
False Indigo leaves turn an unattractive black with the first hard frost and the plants tend to collapse by mid-winter, so cutting them back in fall is usually recommended.
Pests and Problems
Weevils have been known to eat and infest Baptisia seeds. This can be a big problem if you are saving the seeds to plant. Always check your seeds before bringing them indoors.