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In Praise of Baptisia

Baptisia ‘Twilight’ adding height in the background, with Allium and Euphorbia

I often like to tempt you with plants which I suspect you may be unfamiliar with, but a walk about the garden convinced me to laud praise on our garden stalwarts. In particular I’d like to reacquaint you with my old perennial favorite, Baptisia, and its recent reincarnations.

Baptisia, commonly known as False Indigo or False Lupine, was one of the perennials we planted in our first garden 25 years ago, and that same B. australis, introduced as a young seedling, still surges forth each spring with vigor and good looks.  Baptisia is not a only long lived plant, it is also one of the first perennials which add height to the late spring border, shooting up to and eventually forming clumps of 3? or more. The early size factor adds greatly to it?s value. The flowers are displayed on showy spires and resemble lupines. It is a great compliment to the other late spring stars: Peonies, Iris, Euphorbia and late bulbs like Allium.

The most common species you’ll encounter is B. australis, with typically violet blue flowers and a height of 3-4′ and equal width. Other species you may commonly encounter include B. alba, (with white flowers) and B. sphaerocarpa (yellow), and to some extent B. bracteata. In recent years hybrids have been made crossing the species, alternating host and pollen plants. Ron Gardner introduced ‘Carolina Moonlight’ after  successfully crossing B. alba and B. sphaerocarpa in 2002.  Jim Ault of the Chicago Garden has developed a number of great cultivars by crossing B. australis and sphaerocarpa resulting in named forms B. ‘Solar Flare’, ‘Twilight, and Midnight Prairie Blues’. Hans Hansen has developed more crosses are becoming available such as ‘Lemon Meringue’and ‘Dutch Chocolate’.

Baptisia ‘Midnight Prairie Blues’

Baptisia ‘Solar Flare’

A form we grow in our gardens which always draws comment for it’s compact habit is Baptisia australis var minor. It forms a low 2”mound of dense blue green foliage with typical large blue violet flowers, but long after the flowers fade, B. australis var minor  shows off with its tidy appearance . Another excellent but slow growing form is a selection made by Brian Megowan of the legendary Blue Meadow Farm: B. ‘Esther’, with her white flowers born on dusky slate stems. We’re rooting stem cuttings of her now, in hopes of having young plants for sale next spring.

Baptisia australis var minor

Baptisia ‘Esther’

Some things to note. Baptisia are prairie plants and like a sunny well drained soil. Baptisia australis is the hardiest of the group, tolerating cold zone 3 winters. Baptisia alba and sphaerocarpa are hardy through zone 5. The hybrids seem to fall right in the middle with hardiness tolerance of zones 4-9. Baptisia species can be grown from seed, but her clones are vegetatively propagated. Baptisia develop deep tap roots, so division isn’t easy, although it can be done, but expect some die back and a slow recovery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sedum sieboldii

Sedum sieboldii on the left, next to Sedum cauticola

Hmm….October Daphne. Well, it’s a bit of a stretch to say this delightful sedum is reminiscent of a Daphne, but  if I use my imagination I might convince myself. Perhaps there is a bit of a resemblance to one of the low creeping forms. Regardless of whether the common name is misleading, little Sedum sieboldii adds a dose of autumn color to the late season garden, with clusters of rosy pink flowers at  the tips of arching stems, clothed with pink and apricot tinted blue green scalloped foliage.

Botanical nomenclature now wants to classify this form of Stonecrop as Hylotelephium, but for the sake of common knowledge let’s continue here using the genus Sedum. Sedum sieboldii begins the spring season as a tidy rosette of almost turquoise fleshy scalloped leaves that develop a lovely wine red edge. The form and foliage work well all season and then informally transform in early fall, when the stems begin to extend, flower and develop October color. It is super hardy (we’re talking zone 3 here). It is most often used as a rockery subject, tucked into crevices where it remains quite happy, but we’ve left it outdoors in frost tolerant pots and it returns in the spring unfazed. Obviously Sedum sieboldii  likes well drained soil, but we’ve found it to be quite forgiving of average soil conditions.

Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’

Bush clover in blossom waves
without spilling
a drop of dew
—- Matsuo Basho

If you had to choose one plant to fill your late summer garden, you might consider the lovely Japanese Bush Clover, Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’. This selection was discovered by the accomplished plantsman, Bill Frederick, at Gibraltar, one of the duPont family estates in Wilmington, Delaware.  We have to admit ‘Gibraltar’ is a big show-off, quickly growing to 5-6′ tall and in just a few years occupying an 8-10 sq. ft. area quite easily. It loves a sunny spot and is hardy in zones 5-9.

 Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’ is in the legume family, and this means it does not require a rich soil, but prefers one that is a lean and well drained. To manage its size and form, you should cut the woody stalks hard to the ground in early spring. This may seem alarming at first, but Bush Clover blooms on new growth and  the full height will be attained by mid summer. A bevy of cascading branches adorned by an abundance of purple pink pea blossoms will add eye catching color from late August through September.

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Indigofera amblyantha

Indigofera amblyanthaIt’s time to love pink, and how can anyone say no to a flowering shrub that produces upright racemes of soft pink pea blossoms from late spring right through fall. Indigofera amblyantha, commonly known as Chinese Indigo, is a member of the legume family, so it fixes its own nitrogen from the soil and thus is a candidate for poor soil conditions. It asks for full sun and good drainage, and is hardy in zones 6-9. It wants to be a multi branched shrub but we have seen it charmingly pruned to a single leader (to appear as a small tree). In zones with severe winters, Indigofera amblyantha may get winter die back, so we suggest that if you try this pruning treatment, do so on plants located in a sheltered spot and consider it as an experiment. Then again, should die back occur, you can always enjoy this plant as the bushier shrub it is more inclined to be.

Attractive companion plants for Indigofera amblyantha are Calamintha nepetoides, Euphorbia ‘Blue Haze’ and Sedum ‘Maestro’.

Euphorbia x ‘Blue Haze’

Euphorbia 'Blue Haze'We love mix and match plants…those versatile subjects that work in a variety of garden compositions. We think Euphorbia x ‘Blue Haze’ qualifies as such.  In fact, I’m trying to think of plant colors that wouldn?t coordinate with this plant, and I can?t. The powder blue foliage subdues the tone of the lime green bracts just enough to work well with pastels, yet still allows the vibrant chartreuse “flowers” to shine and support stronger color complements as well.

Grow Euphorbia x ‘Blue Haze’ for summer bloom as well for its nearly evergreen (for us) glaucous foliage. A Plant Haven introduction, it?s a cross between E. nicaeensis and E. sequieriana subsp. niciciana and presents a tidy accent for the front of the border or even as a container subject. The loose 15″ mounds spread to about 2′, and the somewhat decumbent stems bear limey bracts from June through September. It loves dry sites, and enjoys full sun or partial shade. Deer won’t touch it because of its caustic sap (be careful if you have sensitive skin). Reports on hardiness vary. We can attest we’ve had successful experience overwintering ‘Blue Haze’ in zone 6a, but a number of nurseries list its hardiness to zone 5 (-20F).  As is true of so many plants, good drainage is the key. Report to us if you’re a cold climate gardener who’s had success with this plant.

Euphorbia myrsinites

Lime green, chartreuse, acid green, take your pick. The strong shades of Euphorbia myrsinites bracts scream out that it’s spring! It’s a shade that demands to be paired with vibrant tones: rich violet, deep red, hot pink, and flaming orange. Tulips! Primroses! Fritallaries!

Euphorbia, for the most part, is native to the lands along the Mediterranean, but we often associate this group of perennials with British gardens. Several Euphorbia species are the earliest bloomers in the garden, right after the Hellebores. The lovely evergreen forms, hybrids of E. wulfenii and amygdaloides, can be disappointing in cold climate gardens, as they often get damaged by our harsh winters. Still there are a couple of species that are reliable performers in zones 5 and 6. One is Euphorbia myrsinites or Donkey Tail Spurge, and it has its place in the sunny dry garden. Its wandering habit, with its trailing stems clothed in blue grey foliage, snake along the soil surface and terminate in clusters of chartreuse bracts and tiny yellow flowers. We like the picture painted when these stems emerge through clumps of purple leaved Labrador Violets.

Some things you should note. Plants self sow where happy, (sunny dry soil) and occasionally in milder climates, their numerous progeny can be a nuisance. Another word of warning: the milky sap of cut stems may cause a rash and should be avoided by those with sensitive skin.

 

x Graptosedum ‘California Sunset’

graxcs1There are many interesting intergeneric (crosses between 2 genera) hybrids of succulents. x Graptosedum ‘California Sunset’ is a cross between Graptopetalum and Sedum. It bears tawny rose colored fleshy petals that surround and terminate in rosettes on somewhat sprawling stems. We especially like it combined with the steel blue of Senecio serpens (Chalksticks). Cool temperatures deepen the foliage color to striking copper red tones. Starry white flowers are borne mostly in the winter months.

Grow x Graptosedum ‘California Sunset’ in full sun. Pinch it back to have a tighter growth habit. Plants will grow to perhaps 6-12″ high before the stems begin to spill will weight.

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