Plant Profile: Baptisia

A perennial with presence

Baptisia australis flowers

Baptisia is a tough, deer and rabbit resistant group of herbaceous perennial plants that provide beautiful spires of flowers in spring and handsome, disease and pest resistant foliage the rest of the season.

Baptisia is commonly known as false indigo or wild indigo because a blue dye can be made from some species. Dye made from Baptisia was exported from the colonies to England in the 1700’s.

Baptisia australis

Baptisia australis, a blue flowering species, is native to Pennsylvania. Other Baptisia species have flowers in white (Baptisia alba) and yellow (Baptisia sphaerocarpa). These different species have been crossed to create many beautiful and robust garden perennials.

Baptisia flower best in full sun and pretty much any average garden soil – they are not pH sensitive. Because of their extensive tap root they shrug off drought, but this also makes them difficult to move once established. They create sizable, shrub-like plants when they mature so be sure to take note of the chosen cultivar’s size and leave room for growth. The seed pods can be attractive in winter, but if desired plants can be trimmed after flowering to control size and prevent any flopping on to neighbors. Baptisia will push out new leaves after trimming to cover any rough cut stems.

Baptisia ‘Decadence® Lemon Meringue’

It’s generally better to plant Baptisia in the fall in our warmer climate, but it can be planted anytime. Just be sure to give it some water its first summer if you plant in spring.

Because Baptisia grow to shrub size every year, they appreciate a top dressing of compost or a dose of slow release fertilizer. Be careful working around the plants in spring because breaking off the new growth will eliminate flower buds.

Baptisia can be slow to get started in the garden because it’s busy underground building its root system, but be patient and you will be rewarded with a beautiful, dependable, long-lived plant. Bet on Baptisia – you won’t be sorry.

Want more information? Here are some links:

Mt. Cuba Botanical Garden Baptisia Trials report

Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder – Baptisia australis

Clemson Cooperative Extension – Baptisia

Mini and Dwarf Shrubs

Smaller is sometimes better

Article by A. Goldman

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers‘ in summer

There are many reasons to think about adding small shrubs to your landscape.  As many gardeners downsize or have mature plantings at their properties, it is wonderful to see new versions of old favorites being introduced.  Not everyone can devote enough real estate for a VW bug-sized shrub that may only bloom once a year but now you can get one that is only a fraction of its previous size. 

Replacing plantings of annuals with small shrubs can reduce maintenance and expense over time. Smaller shrubs can be tucked around existing trees and large shrubs to reduce the need to mulch. Small shrubs can even be planted in large containers to simplify annual planting and provide year round structure.

Here are a few suggestions for small shrubs. They are divided into mini shrubs which mature under two feet and dwarf shrubs  which are considerably smaller than the original but may still reach four feet or so.

Mini shrubs to consider:

  • Tiny Tuff Stuff Hydrangea: 18-24” re-blooming lace cap hydrangea
  • Lil Ditty Viburnum: 24” fragrant white flowers and fall color part shade tolerant
  • Yuki Cherry Blossom Deutzia: 1-2’ pink flowers, use as a groundcover
  • Double Play Gold Spirea: 24” golden foliage with hot pink flowers, deer resistant
  • Ground Hog Aronia: 14” native, white flowers and purple berries, tough plant
  • Carsten’s Wintergold Mugo Pine: 1-2’ winter golden needles, hardy to Z2, rugged
  • Petite Knock Out Rose:  18” same vigorous growth and continuous blooming

Dwarf shrubs to add:

  • Sugartina Clethra:36”  Native, easy care, bee attractor, fragrant flowers
  • Red Rover Dogwood: 5’ Native, great fall color, red stems, pollinator and bird beneficial
  • Little Quickfire/Little Lime Hydrangea:  5-6’ tried and true, die hard hydrangeas
  • Ruby Slippers Oak Leaf Hydrangea: 3-4’ with a large flower inflorescence and nice fall color
  • Scent and Sensibility Lilac: 3’ wider than tall, fragrant, purple and re-blooming
  • Crimson Kisses Weigela: 3’ re-blooming red flowers with white, easy care
  • Winecraft Gold Smokebush:  6’ golden foliage, smaller and denser than regular smokebush

Take a look around your landscape to consider where you might tuck in some added interest with these smaller shrubs.  They are a great transition from larger shrub and trees and make a nice backdrop to perennials.  Consider adding a few to offer more cover for the birds and critters that call your garden home.  Smaller is better!

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers‘ in fall

Beyond Milkweed

Bringing in the Butterflies

Many know the importance of supplying milkweed as a food source for Monarch butterfly caterpillars, but there are other plants you can add to your yard to support other butterfly species.

Zizia aurea in bloom

Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars will feast on Zizia aurea. This native perennial has cheerful unbrels of yellow flowers in spring and will grow in full sun or part shade. Eastern Black Swallowtail will also eat dill, parsley, fennel and carrots – if you are willing to share.

The Pearl Crescent relies on our native asters like Symphyotrichum cordifolium (blue wood aster), Symphyotrichum oblongifolium  (aromatic aster), Symphyotrichum laeve (smooth aster), or Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (new england aster). Asters are beautiful flowering plants that also provide late season nectar for butterflies and bees. There are many lovely cultivars to choose from – one to fit almost any garden space.

Antennaria plantaginifolia in bloom

Antennaria plantaginifolia is a food source for the American Painted Lady butterfly . The caterpillars roll the plant’s leaves to make sheltered cocoons. This plant makes an attractive low growing ground cover in sunny, dry well drained places.

Woody plants contribute to butterfly survival too. The Spicebush Swallowtail depends on our native spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and native Sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum). Wild cherry (Prunus serotina) supports Spring and Summer Azure caterpillars and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. If you grow our native Pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba) not only could you get tasty fruit, you might be lucky enough to see a Zebra Swallowtail.

Great Spangled Fritillary

Having a less than perfect lawn is also a big benefit to butterflies. The Great Spangled Fritillary relies on common violets. Leaving violets in your lawn (or having a patch as a groundcover) is vital to these beautiful butterflies. White clover supports a host of butterflies including the Orange Sulphur, the Gray Hairstreak, the Eastern Tailed Blue and the Clouded Sulphur. It is also a terrific source of nectar and pollen for bees and improves soil by sequestering nitrogen.  

Since some butterflies and moths winter over as caterpillars or chrysalises (and sometimes even as adults) in leaf litter and plant debris, try to wait till the weather warms in spring before doing too much clean up. Wherever possible, leave fallen leaves in place. This will protect hibernating butterflies (as well as other critters) and will provide you with free, nutritious garden mulch – its a win-win.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Tithonia rotundifolia