Sunday, June 13, 2010


What’s blooming in the area: Tea and double pink shrub roses, Apache plume, silver lace vine, tumble mustard, few hollyhocks, fern-leaf globemallow, oxalis, velvetweed, white evening primrose, scarlet beeblossom, nits and lice, milkweed, bindweed, datura, alfalfa, Dutch and purple clovers, purple loco, sweet pea, native dandelion, goat’s beard, hawkweed, paper flower; brome, rice, and three-awn grasses; buds on Virginia creeper.

In my yard looking north: Catalpa, daylily, red hot poker, golden spur columbine, Harweig evening primrose, chocolate flower, blanket flower, coreopsis, Moonshine yarrow, Mexican hat, anthemis.

Looking east: Dr. Huey rose, winecup, oriental poppy, coral bells, Jupiter’s beard, first coral beardtongue, bouncing Bess, pied snapdragon, Maltese cross, pink salvia, pink evening primrose; snow-in-summer, Bath’s pink and sea pink peaked; buds on sidalcea; zucchini seeds up.

Looking south: Prairie and rugosa roses.

Looking west: Rumanian sage, purple salvia, catmint, Husker’s Red beardtongue, blue flax; buds on sea lavender and speedwell; daffodil, tulip and grape hyacinth leaves disappearing.

Bedding plants: Zonal geraniums, moss rose.

Inside: Aptenia.

Animal sightings: Gecko, cabbage butterfly, bees on pink evening primrose, large black harvester and small red ants; hear crickets.

Weather: High temperatures and bad air during week, high winds yesterday; another fire in the Jemez; last attempted rain 05/28/09; 14:36 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Whatever was I thinking? Any gardener who hasn’t uttered those words, simply hasn’t been at it very long.

I planted the bare root of a Baptisia australis in May of 1998. Most guides say it reaches its flowering prime in three years, even if grown from seed. I had no flowers until 2007, and this is the first year I can say that it begins to resemble something one would encourage.

Only now, I can’t remember why I wanted it.

Looking back at the pictures of the plant in the catalog I used to order the plant, the false indigo looks like a large clump of lupine. What I have is something closer to a cluster of dark blue sweet peas standing atop tall, single stems of clover.

Looking at another catalog from that time, I see the perennial described as "native prairie." I’ve never been interested in developing the west side of my house as a natural garden, but I may have been looking for plants that could survive prairie conditions.

I’ve since learned, the word prairie is used both to refer to a general environment that spreads west from the Appalachians to the Mississippi valley and to the grasses and their associated plants growing in that area.

This Baptisia is native to the waterways of the prairie, not to the grasslands. To survive the variable conditions of its home range, it has a deep taproot which allows it to survive drought. As a legume, it also attracts microorganisms that fix nitrogen.

However, when the climate is dry and the soil sandy, it takes time for the root and its supporting environment to develop. It was only after the peculiar weather of the past two years that the woody crown put up more than a few stems.

Conservationists who want to use its seeds in tall grass prairie restoration projects have been frustrated by their unpredictable germination. Tony Avent noticed fresh seed emerges quite easily, a sentiment echoed by eastern gardeners who constantly pull out seedlings. However, as soon as the yellowish-brown kidney shaped beans dry, Avent found he had to treat them with boiling water to break their dormancy.

Thomas Boyle and Kristen Hladun tried every scarification method known to botanists and found sulphuric acid works best. Researchers at the Chicago Botanic Garden reasoned that since the local prairie was maintained by fire and not chemists, maybe smoke would help conservationists with their restoration projects. Baptisia australis was one of the plants they tested that did indeed respond to aerosol smoke.

The grey green plant found other ways to survive the grassland habitat, including developing bitter tasting alkaloids that deter grazing. Still, the seed pods are invaded by weevils and the flowers are eaten by blister beetles, two pests that keep it in check in its home range but are missing in those lush gardens overrun by the tiny seedlings each spring.

The large pods are another of its defensive tricks. When the seeds mature, they rattle inside the blackening case. Some have suggested the sound, especially along a river, would startled people into thinking a snake was present. However, the Cherokee weren’t fooled long, They used the roots and leaves for a dye and medicine.

The other phrase I saw in the old catalog that might have attracted my interest is "bushy, shrub like habit." While I didn’t want a prairie garden on the west side of my house, I did want a row of shrubs with blue colored flowers that would make the narrow area that snaked along the irrigation hose look larger.

When I think of a shrub, I think of a plant that has many branches like the Russian sage and the caryopteris growing there, or that produces a great mound like the Six Hills Giant catmint. My Baptisia instead is a narrow clump of stalks that rise several feet before spreading into a foot wide canopy of subdividing trifoliate leaves that disappears every winter.

One would get the effect of a copse in its native riparian environment when multiple plants or the rhizomatous offspring of the parent stretched along the water. Indeed, it was a clump of plants that were used to create the how the photograph that tempted me to order.

As my plant emerged the beginning of May and started blooming the end of the month, I began to wonder if it had finally matured, or if it was one of those plants that slowly build to a climax, then die. When Avent went looking for members of the genus, he found plants were still growing where they were spotted decades before and others have said australis clumps have lived more than 20 years without dividing.

If it returns next spring, and it is always one of the last things to break ground, I’ll know that it has finally become established. If I don’t see it, I won’t know if this weather finally did it in or if it had reached the end of its natural life.

I also don’t know if I would replace it. I’ve gotten used to its tall summer presence, but I’m not sure purple sweet peas and clover leaves are worth waiting a decade.

Notes:Catalogs from Milaeger’s Gardens (1993) and White Flower Farm (1998). Comments on "Indigo Baptista - Transplanting" and problems with seedlings at

Avent, Tony. "Baptisia - Revenge of the Redneck Lupines," Horticulture Magazine, June 2002.

Boyle, T. H. and K. Hladun. "Influence of Seed Size, Testa Color, Scarification Method, and Immersion in Cool or Hot Water on Germination of Baptisia australis (L.) R. Br. Seeds,"
HortScience 40:1846-1849:2005.

Forsberg, Britt, Lara Jefferson and Karyi Havens. "Effects of Smoke on Prairie Seed Germination," Chicago Botanic Garden.

Hamel, Paul B. and Mary U. Chiltoskey. Cherokee Plants and Their Uses -- A 400 Year History, 1975.

Photograph: Baptisia australis in front of Six Hills Giant catmint, 6 June 2010, just before the heat finished it off for the season.

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