Show Me Oz – Spring is in full swing here in Oz and the vast array of lovely wildflowers are blooming in quick procession. Most of the delicate spring ephemerals like Trout Lily, Spring Beauty, and Bluets come and go so quickly that it is easy to miss them all together. Thankfully, we have an ocean of natives to enjoy all season long. One of my early spring favorites is the lovely Cream Wild Indigo, which blooms much longer than most spring flowers and puts on a show-stopping floral display fit for even the most refined garden.
Cream Wild Indigo, sometimes also referred to as Cream False Indigo (Baptisia bracteata) is a long-lived perennial native wildflower belonging to the Fabaceae (a.k.a. Leguminosae) or pea family of plants. This huge family includes garden-variety vegetables such as beans and peas as well as multitudes of cultivated ornamentals and natives. Cream Wild Indigo is a species found in the genus Baptisia, whose name stems from the Greek word bapto, meaning to dip, immerse or dye. Indeed, North American Baptisia species were used as dye plants for thousands of years by Native Americans and early settlers alike. The latter peoples were very familiar with an unrelated European plant known as True Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), which produces a much more effective and long-lasting blue dye than the North American natives. Eventually, this plant would be imported to the new world and replace the native Baptisias in that role.
There are roughly 20 native Baptisias in North America including such beauties as White False- or White Wild Indigo (Baptisia alba), Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis or Baptisia caerulea), Yellow False Indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa), and Yellow False- or Yellow Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria). All have alternate, obovate or elliptical (wider in the middle), tri-foliate (three-parted) leaves typical of the pea family. As they age, the plants produce more and more stems, eventually creating a large, loosely-rounded mound that in some species can reach 3’-4’ tall and up to 4’ wide in older specimens in ideal conditions. However, most wild plants growing in their native conditions reach about half that size.
The flowers of Baptisias are also typical of the pea family and are borne in terminal racemes. Depending on the species, the flowering stems may stand upright above the foliage or, as is the case with Cream Wild Indigo, cascade toward the ground in a showy floral display. As its name suggests, Cream Wild Indigo has masses of large creamy, pale yellow flowers densely arranged along one to multiple flowering stems that can grow up to 9” in length. It is the first of the Baptisias to bloom in the spring (after daffodils and just before bearded irises), making it a lovely addition to the cultivated flower garden.
In the wild, Cream Wild Indigo is often found in open woods, shaded field edges, and sometimes open prairies or undisturbed fields. Plants grow from an extensive and deep rhizomatic root system that allows the plants to weather extensive periods of heat and drought. Unlike many members of the pea family, deer and other browsers do not care for Baptisias, making them even more welcome in rural gardens.
It is possible to transplant Wild Cream Indigo from woodlots into the cultivated garden, but because of their brittle and deep root systems, this is best done when plants are very young and have fewer than four leafy stems. It is also advisable to wait to move native plants until late summer or early fall after the seed pods have matured and the leaves are beginning to die back. That being said, it is never really a good idea to take wild plants from their native environment, especially if the number of plants in that area are few or rare. Also, digging native plants from state parks, forests, roadsides or conservation lands is illegal. Many wildflower nurseries sell Baptisia starts and whenever possible, this is the preferred method of obtaining plants.
Otherwise, seeds can be used to start new plants and should always be tried before digging up existing wild plants. The problem most people have when trying to gather and grow Cream Wild Indigo seeds is that most are infested with weevils, reducing seed viability to almost zero. To overcome this issue, harvest seed pods before they dry entirely on the plant, shell them as you would peas or beans and spread them out on wire screens away from direct sunlight to dry for two weeks. Once completely dry, place the seeds in a small canning jar or freezer bag and place in the freezer for four days – but not any longer or the embryo could be damaged – to kill the weevils.
Plant seeds in the fall, either directly in the garden where you want them to grow or in pots that are left outdoors all winter. For more details on winter-sowing natives, read my article Winter Sowing: Get a Jump on Spring.
In the end, Cream Wild Indigo is an easy native to grow. It requires little or no maintenance, supplemental water or fertilizers, and can grow in almost any soil – from rocky red clay to the best garden soil available, is not bothered by browsers like deer and rabbit, and aside from seed weevils, is rarely attacked by pests or disease. Cream Wild Indigo grows in partial or filtered shade and in areas with little grassy or weedy competition in its natural environment. However, in these conditions the plant remains fairly small throughout its life. When given full sun, Cream Wild Indigo and other members of this beautiful genus, explode with vigorous growth and an abundance of gorgeous spring flowers that are attractive to native bumblebees and a wide array of butterflies!
© 2016 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
Read more about native Cream Wild Indigo at these trusted sites:
Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.