Yellow false indigo, the wild Baptisia tinctoria, is spilling over the wall of our Pineywoods pathway now, alive with bees. It’s a rounded shrub topping out at about two feet in height and width, and it makes a nice border.
Better known perhaps are the stately three-to four-foot tall wild indigos that produce dramatic spikes of bloom in blues or yellows for the middle to back of the border. “Carolina Moon,” in this photo, is a found hybrid of B. Sphaerocarpa and B. alba (native, but not to here; therefore, not blooming here).
More common in the wild and in gardens is Baptisia australis, the blue form. The genus name is from the Greek word bapto, meaning to dye. The common name refers to its Native and Early American use as an inferior substitute for true indigo in making blue dyes; both blue and yellow baptisias were so used.
Whether round or tall, yellow or blue, the plants share the blossom and leaf forms that readily identify them as members of the pea, or Fabaceae family. Not fussy about soil, they like it dry to medium, in full sun to part shade. As bees prefer blue flowers, but see the color yellow as blue—any baptisia is sure to please them.
If you like tall (up to 7 feet) spikes topped with white candle-like chandeliers, there’s a native plant for you, whether your site is in sun or shade.
Blooming now in rich soil and dappled shade below the Giant’s Stairs is Black cohosh, Actaea racemosa (formerly Cimifuga racemosa), AKA Bugbane or Black snakeroot. It blooms here for about three weeks in early summer against a dark background of soapstone boulders.
It’s odor is said to repel insects—but not the Spring azure butterfly, for which it is a host. Medicinally, the root has been used to treat many conditions, even snakebite, most notably women’s health issues.
If your place is in the sun, Culver’s root, Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album,’ offers a similar aesthetic, and blooms at about the same time.
Unlike Black cohosh, which has a collar of basel leaves somewhat like peonies, Culver’s root has whorled leaves all the way up the stem. Deadheading can prolong bloom, and cutting back after bloom can result in a second late-summer flush.
Native over much of the eastern United States, Culver’s root has been used medicinally as a cathartic. A bird seeded it into our home garden years ago, and it has established and spread there so that we have plenty to share for the Piedmont Master Gardeners Spring Plant Sale each May.