Better Together: Baptisias

– Posted in: Garden Plants


Until this year, baptisias (Baptisia), also known as false indigos, wouldn’t have made it onto my list of favorite perennials. They bloom only in late spring, and once they’re done, that’s pretty much it: the foliage isn’t all that exciting during the rest of the year. They’re bulky, too, hogging several square feet of prime garden space through the rest of the growing season. After enjoying every minute of their bloom season this past month, though, I have to say that I now wouldn’t be without them. Putting some effort into finding suitable companions for them has made all the difference.


The show started with ‘Screaming Yellow’, a selection of Baptisia sphaerocarpa.

Baptisia Screaming Yellow Nepeta Walker's Low  Cornus SandG Salvia Caradonna

Above is a 3-year-old clump adding zip to an otherwise ho-hum pairing of ‘Walker’s Blue’ catmint (Nepeta) and ‘Caradonna’ salvia.

Anthemis Susanna Mitchell Baptisia Screaming Yellow Geranium Rozanne

And here’s a 6-year-old clump of ‘Screaming Yellow’ with ‘Susanna Mitchell’ marguerite (Anthemis) and Rozanne geranium (Geranium ‘Gerwat’).


I liked it with blues and other yellows, but I thought it was really spectacular set against the dark foliage of Diabolo ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Monlo’) and a red-leaved Japanese maple (Acer palmatum).


Ordinary blue false indigo (B. australis) started flowering about a week after ‘Screaming Yellow’ – just about the same time as giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha).


It was stately with the white but stunning against the bright yellow foliage of golden elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Aurea’) and golden cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum opulus ‘Aureum’).


‘Purple Smoke’ isn’t nearly as intensely colored and doesn’t make much of a show on its own.


Pairing it with also pale Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) didn’t help much for the spring show. (It looks great in fall, though, when the bluestar foliage turns golden.)


Adding soft yellow ‘Carolina Moonlight’ helped some, but so far, I haven’t yet found the idea partner or background color for ‘Purple Smoke’.


I need to do some work on finding a great backdrop color for ‘Carolina Moonlight’ too. Green is nice, but I’m thinking that a deep purple would really pop the pale blooms and echo the dark stems as well.

The grayish purple of hybrid ‘Twilite Prairieblues’ is another color that has puzzled me, so I decided to grab a piece and experiment with different companions.

136 148
Against aromatic aster (Symphiotrichum oblongifolium) foliage Against the backlit foliage of ‘Grace’ smokebush (Cotinus)
158 154
With blue false indigo (B. australis) Against Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) and giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha)
155 157
Against ‘Screaming Yellow’ With ‘Carolina Moonlight’
141 137
Against ‘Isla Gold’ tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) Against ‘Red Majestic’ hazel (Corylus avellana)

Mmmmm, that last one is the winner, I think. ‘Twilite Prairieblues’ better pack its bags, because it’s probably going to be moving at some point. Anyone else have a better suggestion for showing off ‘Twilite Prairieblues’, or any of the other baptisias?

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Susan aka Miss R June 10, 2010, 6:24 am

Baptisia australis was the only cultivar available when I ordered my first one many years ago. It has been a go to plant for me for many years–more so now with the wider variety available. I love the grey foliage and the black seed pods. As for companions–I go for the foliage and let the bloom do its own thing–so I like your Amsonia pairing…I also like it paired with daylilly foliage.

That’s interesting – I’ve heard other people describe the foliage as gray, but I see it as an ordinary green, or maybe slightly bluish green. I can imagine it being more attractive the way you see it.

Lisa at Greenbow June 10, 2010, 6:27 am

I like your combinations. I think the smokebush behind the PB looks good. My poor Baptisia is used as sentinels by the back gate. They don’t show off very well except when they are blooming. They don’t get enough sun really and so they haven’t gotten very big even though they have been there for years. I am just happy that they bloom once per year and show their pretty heads over the 4′ fence that I had hoped they would hide. They do a good job of that.

It sounds like a fine place for them, Lisa, if they’re doing what you want them to and they’re not bothering anything else. Maybe it’s a good thing that they’re not in full sun, or they might be big enough to block your gate.

Gardener on Sherlock Street June 10, 2010, 8:02 am

They sure are lovely if you have the space for them.

Or, if you’re willing to do some serious post-bloom pruning. I usually take them down to about a foot, but this year, I chopped the ‘Purple Smoke’ and ‘Carolina Moonlight’ clumps back to 6 inches. It’ll be interesting to see what height they end up being when they bush out again.

Laurrie June 10, 2010, 8:05 am

I really struggle with the muddy indeterminate color of Twilite Prairieblues and posted my lament here:
I finally decided it looks best in a vase indoors.
I love the yellow baptisia in your photos; that clear bright color is delightful.

You beat me to it! The color looked interesting in the catalog pictures, but your photos do an even better job than mine in showing how muddy it looks in full sun.

Benjamin June 10, 2010, 10:43 am

I have ‘twilight’ and ‘carolina,’ along with what I hope will be an alba. Also have the species. They do take up far too much room, but I’ve discovered silver spotted skipper butterfly larva all over them, and the blue foliage can be nice if you underplant the stalks. ‘Twilight’ is hard to companion plant! I’ve got mine in front of a wood fence, that sorta works. My mom hates it because she can’t see the blooms from far away and is gonna destroy hers unless I rescue these deeply tap-rooted beasts before they get too rooted.

I have the same issue with that color: I can’t see it unless I’m just a few feet away. I bet your mom would enjoy ‘Screaming Yellow’ – that one’s very hard to miss.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter June 10, 2010, 11:28 am

I like ‘Purple Smoke’ with little bluestem. In midsummer, the foliage colors blend together, but the forms make a good contrast. It might be a bit subtle for your taste, though. I also have a Lycoris squamigera in there for a bit of color & flower.

Hey, are you saying I’m not subtle? It does sound like a pretty combination of textures, and I love the idea of adding lycoris for later interest. Thanks for the tip!

Laura June 10, 2010, 3:16 pm

I love the yellow and purple together. Very striking!

That combination of colors is a current favorite of mine too, Laura.

Cindy June 10, 2010, 5:51 pm

I love that colour- I’m thinking that pairing it with Lady Emma Hamilton (a David Austin rose) in my front garden would be stunning, both during the baptesia’s bloom period and after.

Oh my, that sounds absolutely delicious – the plummy purple (I’m assuming you mean the Twilite Prairieblues) with the peachy orange of the rose. Great idea!

Eileen June 10, 2010, 8:11 pm

I like your picture of Twilite Prairieblues with Carolina Moonlight. Both hues are shades (grayer) of the saturated secondary colors and the CM brings out the creamy light yellow in the back of the TP petals. Beautiful!

Thanks, Eileen. Not being subtle (ahem), I’d prefer that combo with some deep purple foliage for some intensity, but your right that they do look pretty together as-is.

Jean June 10, 2010, 11:34 pm

Nan, I have long been a fan of Baptisia australis, but this is the first year that I’ve seen yellow Baptisias that seem to be hardy enough to grow in my cold climate garden. I recently added Carolina Moonlight to my wish list, so I appreciate the help thinking about where to site it and what to include as companions.

Right, Jean – I should have mentioned that ‘Screaming Yellow’, a cultivar of B. sphaerocarpa, seems to be about two zones less hardy than B. australis. I hope the hybrid ‘Carolina Moonlight’ behaves well for you.

Town Mouse June 11, 2010, 5:18 pm

Oh, very cool! I believe they are fairly drought resistant as well. If I wasn’t doing this CA Natives thing, I would be sorely tempted. As for the Persicaria, I admire your courage. I’ve tried to get rid of mine for 2 years, and it’s still sending up shoots. Admirable, really…

Oh, yikes about the persicaria. When I moved one huge clump, I later found a new piece sprouting from a bit I’d missed at the original spot, so I knew it was tenacious, but I didn’t realize it was *that* persistent!

jen June 13, 2010, 3:52 pm

Wow, I LOVE the combo of salvia, catmint and baptista — I will definitely be trying that in my yard, its a knockout!

Glad to inspire you, Jen! It’s one of my favorites too.

Chookie June 14, 2010, 5:05 am

I have a Salvia guaranitica ‘Black knight’ which is a black-purple — that colour might go well with your ‘Purple smoke’. I do think you need something with a quite different form, however.
That ‘Carolina Moonlight’ is just stunning, and I agree with picking up the indigo part. I love the complex colour of the ‘Twilite Prairieblues’ but can see how tricky it would be; I’d be tempted to look for something orangey-brown or a very deep red — something much less subtle, anyway.
But to reiterate: I’d be looking for something with a more interesting form to put next to the Baptisias. (Wonder if they grow here? I don’t know them at all, but they are lovely!)

Based on the pictures I called up on Google, I agree that the color of ‘Black Knight’ might go well with ‘Purple Smoke’. S. guaranitica is usually a fall-bloomer here, though.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter June 19, 2010, 11:22 am

Nan – I guess I should have used the word “boring.” You know me, the brighter the better.

Heh – how about we compromise with “quiet”? I know we share a love of contrast.

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