This low-maintenance, long-lived, herbaceous perennial has a bushy, rounded form and foot-long spikes of yellow, pea-like flowers that attract a variety of pollinators. Multiple dense, branching stems grow 2-4 feet tall in full or part sun. This plant grows best in well-drained average to dry soils, while heavier and rockier soils are tolerated as long as there is good drainage. It thrives in harsh conditions and, as a member of the legume family, actually improves soils by fixing nitrogen. However, the plant does poorly in excessively rich, loamy, moist, or soggy soils. Young plants spend the first year or two developing deep roots, with flowering occurring during the second or third year. Once established, the durable plant won’t need to be watered and will live for many decades with very little maintenance. Pruning won’t be needed, either; similar to others in its genus, the entire plant will break off at the root after the first frost and become a tumbleweed.
Also known as horseflyweed, wild indigo, and yellow wild indigo, B. tinctoria is the only Baptisia in Ohio with yellow blooms. The flowers, a valuable source of nectar for bumble bees and other pollinators, are typical of the pea family, with five petals forming a distinctive “banner, wings, and keel” structure. Numerous short clusters of bright yellow flowers are followed by puffy, dark purple pods that grow July through September. The plant’s fine-textured, gray-green leaves tend to be pest resistant and unappealing to deer and rabbits. Compared to other Baptisias, this one blooms later, has a shorter height and smaller foliage, and bears smaller seed pods and fewer seeds. Found throughout the eastern US and south to Florida, yellow false indigo is rarely found in Ohio and appears on the list of potentially threatened species due to overshading by trees. Thus, when choosing a site, make sure it won’t be shaded out by competing plants. It occasionally spreads by rhizomes, though this is uncommon in landscaped settings.
Native habitats include dry meadows, open woodlands and borders, prairies, roadsides, and sandy soils. Great as a specimen plant and for open woodland areas, border plantings, naturalized landscapes, and massing in large areas. It tolerates drought, poor soils, urban conditions, salt, controlled burns, and short-term flooding when sited in full sun. Consider it as a substitute for Japanese barberry and multiflora rose. Good companion plants include butterfly weed, purple coneflower, brown-eyed Susan, and showy goldenrod.
Grows 3-4’ tall.
Does best with at least 6 hours of direct sun.
Prefers dry, sandy soils and well-drained, average-moisture soils.
Spike-like racemes of flowers bloom June-August atop the central stem. Upper lateral stems terminate in wands of flowers about 4-8” long. Flowers are loosely distributed along the racemes, facing in all directions. Each flower is about ¾” long and has 5 yellow petals, a tubular calyx, 10 stamens, and a pistil. Black pods are ¾” long with thin walls and one or several seeds.
Silvery leaves are divided into three leaflets that are wedge shaped with rounded tips and about ½” long. The leaflets have smooth margins and are often folded downward. They occur on lateral and upper stems.
Stout, grayish-green central stem is unbranched below but branched on the upper part of the plant.
Baptisia hosts 23 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including the Io and wild indigo duskywing moths and the eastern-tailed blue and clouded sulphur butterflies. Bees, flies, and beetles suck the nectar and feed on pollen. Insects and arachnids eat the seeds or use the pods as hiding spots.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans used the root as an antiseptic wash for wounds and skin problems. Modern research indicates that the herb may stimulate the immune system to help with bacterial infections in the ear, nose, and throat.
Baptisia means “to dye,” referring to some of the plants in this genus being used as a dye.
Caution: the plant is toxic in large quantities.
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