In the Garden:
New England
January, 2010
Regional Report

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These beautiful baptisia flowers will be followed by gray-black seed pods.

And the Winner Is: Baptisia

Sometimes the hardest part of gardening is choosing what plants to grow. There are so many different plants available, and scanning gardening magazines and plant tags often leads to more confusion -- everything is picture perfect! One way to narrow down your choices is to look for plants that have won awards.

For example, the 2010 Perennial Plant of the Year is Baptisia australis, which goes by the common names false indigo, wild indigo, and simply baptisia (pronounced bap-TEEZ-ee-uh). This honor, given by the Perennial Plant Association, is awarded each year to a plant that adapts to a wide range of climates, is relatively low maintenance, has multi-season interest, and is readily available at nurseries and garden centers.

Baptisia is native to the Eastern U.S. and grows 3 to 4 feet tall with bluish green, clover-like foliage. In spring, the shoots are topped by spires of pea-like blooms in rich purple-blue. The plant grows slowly at first, but after a few years forms an attractive, upright mound up to 4 feet across. A mass planting of baptisia in full bloom is a striking sight. As the blooms fade they transform into attractive gray-black seed pods. Both the flowers and the seed pods are attractive in bouquets.

Baptisia forms a deep taproot, making it difficult to transplant, so choose the planting site carefully. The plant prefers full sun; it will grow in part shade but the flowers may need staking to keep them from flopping. Make sure soil is well drained. A member of the legume family, baptisia fixes nitrogen; once established it needs little or no supplemental fertilizer. (The term "fixes nitrogen" means that the plant converts atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use as a nutrient. This is done via a symbiotic relationship the plant has with certain bacteria that colonize and form nodules along its roots. In case you were wondering.)

Unlike many other perennials, baptisia clumps don't need dividing. Although it's possible to divide the deep, gnarly root mass it's risky and you may end up damaging the plant so much that it can't recover. If you want more plants you can propagate it by seed (though it is slow-growing and will take years to reach an appreciable size.) Once established, baptisia is relatively drought tolerant, due in part to that deep taproot. It has few insect and disease problems and is usually ignored by deer (likely due to the alkaloids it contains, which also make the plant somewhat toxic to people and pets).

Baptisia is rated hardy in zones 3 to 9. I've grown it in zones 4 and 7 with great results in both places.

Other Award Winners
Past Perennial Plant of the Year winners include 'Rozanne' geranium, 'Walker's Low' nepeta (catmint), hellebore hybrids, Japanese painted fern, 'Butterfly Blue' scabiosa, 'Goldsturm' rudbeckia (black-eyed susan), 'Magnus' echinacea (purple coneflower), 'Husker Red' penstemon, and 'Becky' Shasta daisy. I've grown all these plants in one garden or another and can vouch for them all. If a plant has been designated a Perennial Plant of the Year, you can trust that it's a reliable choice. Of course you still need to choose an appropriate planting site, plant it properly, and maintain it. No plant is a sure thing, and none are maintenance-free. You can learn more about the perennial plant awards here: http://www.perennialplant.org


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