Spiked Wild Indigo (Baptesia albescens)

Wildflower of the Year

This time of year, our gardens are perfect.  We hole up indoors, pore over catalogues and magazines, and imagine the exemplary specimens and captivating combinations at peak performance in our borders.  Alas, our gardens rarely live up to our lofty expectations.  In short order, the peonies will flop, the phlox will mildew, and the iris will need dividing.  Gardeners in the Uwharries need to day dream about a plant that won’t disappoint – spiked wild indigo (Baptisia albescens), NC’s 2011 Wildflower of the Year. 

Native populations of spiked wild indigo occur along sunny roadsides and in open woodlands of the Piedmont and Sandhills.  Its vigorous root system breaks through tight red clay and reaches deep into sandy soils for moisture.  Drought-tolerant plants are rarely this lush.  The word indigo might suggest blue, but the blooms on this species are white.  In late spring, numerous tall, spiky wands rise above a large, shrub-like clump of blue-green foliage.  The clusters of small white flowers look especially fetching against the glaucous stalks. 

I’ve grown other baptisias in amended clay, including the hybrids ‘Purple Smoke’ and ‘Carolina Moonlight.’  Even during drought conditions, the latter had so many bloomstalks, I lost count somewhere north of 75.  The blooms last for weeks, and the foliage stays upright and fresh until a hard freeze. 

Spiked wild indigo isn’t a common plant in NC, but it occurs throughout the Uwharries.  If you find it growing along a roadside, don’t be tempted to dig it up.  Chances are it won’t survive being transplanted to your garden.  Luckily, we can order seeds from a local source.  Terry Sharpe, a wildlife biologist and forester, collects seeds and grows native plants near Ellerbe.  He was frustrated with the lack of Piedmont ecotypes available for restoration work, so he set about making seeds available for several species.  In addition to spiked wild indigo, he grows varieties of Indiangrass, liatris and asters. 

If, like me, you’re intimidated by seeds, a wide variety of baptisias are available from nurseries that specialize in native plants such as Woodlanders and Niche Gardens.  Tony Avent of Plant Delights in Raleigh lovingly refers to his baptisias as Perennial Redneck Lupines.

You can pick up a free pack of seeds from Terry’s stock at the NC Botanical Garden’s new visitor center.  The building recently earned a platinum LEED certification from the US Green Building Council.  There’s also a treat adorning the walls.  A local quilting guild has produced an artful homage to previous wildflowers of the year.  The display will rotate throughout the year, but it currently includes two of my favorite plants in the Uwharries – the shade-loving foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia var. collina) and the monarch-magnet butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

The Wildflower of the Year program is a joint effort of the NC Botanical Garden and the Garden Club of NC.  Now in its 30th year, the program promotes native plants in hopes of inspiring us to include them in our gardens and protect them in the wild.  Like many acts of altruism, choosing natives is also self-serving – they help our gardens perform their best.  If sited properly, plants adapted to local conditions will thrive.  You don’t have to coddle them or douse them with pesticides.  They don’t ask you to make a fuss – except with admiration.

To receive a free pack of Terry’s seeds through the mail, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to 2011 WFOY, NCBG, Campus Box 3375, UNC-CH, Chapel Hill, NC 27599.  Larger quantities can be purchased through Ernst Conservation Seed (www.ernstseed.com).

-- Ruth Ann Grissom

Photographs of quilts by Ruth Ann Grissom
Top Photograph courtesy of the North Carolina Botanical Garden