Monday, April 1, 2024

White Wild Indigo

It planted itself in a location that's too close to
 the sidewalk, but I'll leave it there since they
don't transplant well.

White Wild Indigo: A beautiful perennial pollinator plant

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba) is a plant worth including in your pollinator garden. It is pollinated by large bees including bumblebees and carpenter bees. It's also a host plant for Wild indigo duskywing and Zarucco duskywing butterflies. The fruits are eaten by birds. While it's an important plant in the local ecosystem, it's toxic to humans and livestock.

It is best propagated from scarified seed. Once established, plants should not be moved, since they have a long tap root. They take several years to reach maturity but are long-lived, and often grows 2-3 feet tall, frequently wider than it is tall. It produces showy white flowers March-May, but is dormant in winter. Use it as a small shrub or background plant in a border located in full sun to partial shade. 

It is a tri-foliate legume and can thrive in a variety of poor soils including acidic to neutral clay, loam, or sand. It naturally occurs in a sandhill environment, so established plants can tolerate some drought, but never flooding. 

The flowers are pollinated by large bees
such as this carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.).

A lovely volunteer

Several years ago, a white wild indigo planted itself in our pollinator garden outside our kitchen window. (I wrote about that garden in "Listening to your landscape.") I had not bought any nursery plants for that space in many years, so I have no idea how it arrived there. Clay County is outside its native range and I've never seen it growing in our neighborhood or in the conservation area next to the neighborhood. 

I'm not sure when it began growing there in this mostly self-planted cottage garden, but I noticed the plant with a strange zig-zag stem the year before it first bloomed in 2021. It dies back in late fall after the seed pods have all turned black. 

What's interesting and different about this plant is that when its new shoots for the year first emerge from the soil, all its flower buds are in place. For most perennial plants that die back like this, the basal leaves are produced first and then the flowering stalk emerges later. There are no basal leaves on this plant. 

The shoots

New sprout, complete with all its flower buds, on 03/5/24. The 3 sprouts on 3/14/24. A few days later the smallest sprout wilted--watering did not revive it and then it turned black. The other two sprouts seem fine. 

The seed pods

The seed pods are surprisingly coarse and large,
 given the delicate nature of the rest of the plant.


The seed pods are about 1.5 inches long and about .5 inches wide. They are surprisingly coarse and large, given the delicate nature of the rest of the plant.

Since it's been blooming, each season, I've been laying its seed pods in some of the wilder areas of our landscape to try to encourage some new plants to take root here. At this point, I have not seen evidence of any new white wild indigo plants in our yard. 

Maybe this year, I will scarify some seeds and plant them in pots so I can keep track of them. It would be nice to have more of this beautiful Florida native in our yard.
The tri-foliate leaves are waxy, so the water beads up. A closer look at the flowers brings to mind Audrey II in "Little Shop of Horrors," only white with a yellow "tongue" hanging out.

The native range for this wildflower is a bit unusual in that it includes
both the midwest north to the Great Lakes and the southeastern states. 

I hope you are enjoying the native spring wildflowers in your yard and in your local parks and preserves. For more information on white wild indigo, visit its FNPS profile page, which also has links to native plant vendors that have it in stock. 

Update 4/16/24: 

I found a seedling across the sidewalk. The leaves are unmistakable. If you look at the top photo of this post, this seedling would have been behind me as I took that photo. Now, I'll need to be on the lookout for more. Especially where I spread out seeds in previous years. 

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

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