Baptisia may be one of the less well known perennial flowers, but there are good reasons why this plant should be included in our gardens. For a start it is native to the United States which is always an advantage. Both flowers and foliage are attractive and in addition it is drought tolerant and deer resistant. It also attracts bees and butterflies. George Coombs from the Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware has made extensive trials of baptisia and was interviewed recently by Margaret Roach. Here is an extract from the interview which I found on her A Way To Garden website.
Q. What are you trialing now out there, George? I?ve gotten the Baptisia report, but what?s in the ground now?
A. We?re actually about ready to take out our Baptisia trial, and are about ready to install a trial of Hydrangea arborescens. We?ve got about 30 different kind of smooth hydrangeas we?re going to test. And we?re just wrapping up our Monarda trials; we?re just in the last weeks of that.
That report will be coming out in December, and we?re slated to replace that with a trial on sneezeweed, or Helenium.
Q. Oh, that will be nice.
A. I don?t know much about those plants, so I?m looking forward to that one.
Q. And I can look forward to my Christmas present from you this year, which will be the Monarda report.
A. We?re also in the middle of our Phlox trial. The Phlox are looking a little worse for the wear considering the weather we?ve had recently.
Q. [Laughter.] Margaret is looking a little worse for the wear, George.
A. I think we all are over the past couple of weeks. In that trial it?s exciting to see what?s doing well, or well-ish.
Q. Well-ish; that?s a good one. I like it.
I remember a few years ago, doing a story with Tony Avent of Plant Delight Nursery that he called ?Plants in Need of a Good PR Person,? and Tony named Baptisia as one such plant. Tony, who is a Southerner as his accent would give away, in case people don?t know him, calls Baptisia his ?red-neck lupines.? [Laughter.]
Why have they been so sort of overlooked or hidden? Why haven?t they been front and center as perennials that everyone needs to grow?
A. I think maybe the first strike against them was the fact that they were native plants. For a long time people weren?t really interest in native plants, but were more interested in things that were exotic, or hard to find.
As we?ve broken down that barrier a little bit, I think the main reason why people aren?t picking these plants up is that they don?t look good at a garden center in a nursery pot. They?re usually pretty slow-growing plants, at least from the beginning, so what you usually see is a 1-gallon or 2-gallon pot with two or three stems. Maybe there?s a flower; maybe there?s not.
It?s not exactly screaming, ?Pick me up off the shelf; take me home.? You have to know what the plant?s going to turn into to really shell out money for it.
Q. It doesn?t show its little head off in the garden center?and actually I think you probably agree with me: I am sick of plants that show off in the garden center and then don?t turn out to be great garden performers, long lives, and good traits in my real-life garden.
A. Exactly. We test a lot of plants here at Mt. Cuba Center, and they breed and select to look good in a pot. But then in a garden setting, they don?t hold up to that expectation. The Baptisia is kind of the opposite; they don?t look good in the beginning, but they just get better and better and better.