This long-lived perennial legume grows in bushy clumps 3-4’ tall and wide with showy legume pods throughout winter and soft, blue-green foliage that adds form and texture to the landscape until the first frost. Its foot-long spires of blue, pea-like flowers in mid to late spring are reminiscent of lupine, which tends to be more finicky about soil conditions. Blue false indigo grows best in full sun, although it tolerates light shade. It adapts to a wide range of well-drained soils, including gravel, sand, clay, and loam and is drought tolerant once established. Like other legumes, it fixes nitrogen in the soil and doesn’t require fertilization. It has a deep tap root and extensive root system, but it can be divided or transplanted in early spring when its thick, asparagus-like shoots start to emerge. In fall or winter, the plant sometimes breaks off at ground level and is blown away by the wind.
Blue false indigo is native to eastern North America and is listed as endangered in Ohio. Its common name refers to the practice of using it as a reasonable substitute for the Asian true indigo (Indigofer tinctoria), which was used to make blue dye. Baptisia comes from the Greek word bapto, meaning “to dip,” as in dyeing. The plant is also known as indigo weed, rattlebush (shaking the dried pods produces a sound like a rattlesnake), and horse fly weed.
Native habitats include prairies, meadows, open woods and edges, and stream banks. This large shrub can serve as a striking specimen plant or as a contrasting backdrop for other perennials. Plant it in groups or in cottage gardens, meadow plantings, and naturalized areas. Suggested companion plants include purple coneflower, columbine, virginia bluebells, and lanceleaf coreopsis. The seed pods are often used in dried arrangements.
Grows 3-4’ tall and wide.
Grows in full or part sun. Excess shade results in fewer flowers and floppy stems.
Prefers gravelly, sandy, or well-drained loamy soils. Tolerates clay.
Each flower is about 1” long, occurring in terminal racemes. Color ranges from pale to intense indigo blue. Blooms last 2-3 weeks, followed by puffy, oblong seed pods 2-3” long that change from green to black in late summer. The sharp-tipped pods contain numerous loose, brown, kidney-shaped seeds.
Leaves are divided into 3 stalkless leaflets with bluntly pointed tips and smooth margins.
Baptisia hosts the larvae of 23 species of Lepidoptera, including wild indigo duskywing, eastern-tailed blue, clouded sulphur, and marine blue butterflies. Bumble bees are primary pollinators, perhaps because they are heavy enough to open the bottom petals of the flowers. Deer and pests tend to leave the plant alone, although ash-gray blister beetle feeds on the flowers and developing seed pods.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans used the plant as a purgative and an eyewash, and the root served as an antiseptic wash for wounds and skin problems. They used cold tea to stop vomiting and held it in the mouth to treat toothaches. A root poultice treated inflammation. Modern research indicates that the herb may stimulate the immune system to help with bacterial infections in the ears, nose and throat.
Caution: this plant is mildly toxic and shouldn’t be consumed. It can cause blurred vision, vomiting, and vertigo.
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