Plant Profiles: Baptisia alba
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Baptisia alba (syn. B.pendula, B. leucantha)
White false indigo
Shrubby, long-lived, late-spring perennial
Full sun with fast drainage; supplemental summer water till established
Impatience; figure 4 years before it comes into its own
Great lupine substitute; Forget transplanting
All I really needed to get through the last dark, wet spring was a stand of mature Baptisia alba. Not that I had one. The mail-order plant that arrived in late fall from South Carolina sat around unplanted until February (why am I admitting this?). The little bugger didn't show its head until mid-April, and for the next month was smaller than a slug - no doubt half the size of the slimy herbivore that promptly reduced it to a few maimed leaves.
But if I'd had a stand of those tall, dark, and slender smoky-purple stems that begin life looking like black asparagus shoots and by June are smothered in blindingly white, lupinesque flowers, I'm sure I would have laughed out loud at the weather's silly shenanigans. What kind of fool did May take me for, trying to pass itself off as November?
Except for one thing. No baptisia in its right mind would have come out to play in all that darkness. This robust and long-lived genus is native to dry, sandy woods, bright woodland edges and prairielike habitats in the East and Midwest. It lacks our good-humored Northwestern patience when it comes to going without sun.
I'm joking of course. About our good humor. But I kid you not about the restorative powers of the false, or wild, indigo, which I'm prepared to describe as the most startlingly beautiful white-flowered perennial I know. Yes, I'd even trade six 'Casa Blanca' lilies for a good clump of B. alba, because I'm undone by the complexity of its beauty: delphinium splendor on a zaftig plant with both grace and taprooted stability.
Like its better-known blue relative, B. australis - once cultivated in the Southeast as a dye substitute for Indogofera - the white species has trifoliate gray-green leaves reminiscent of clover leaves, which are alternately arranged on extremely upright stems. The shrubby foliage of B. alba is said to hold up better through the season than that of B. australis, particularly in the South, but in less sunny locales the problem is more likely to be one of growth than wear and tear.
Even in ample sun, B. alba is slow to establish. Figure four years before you've got a mature clump. Given that I started mine in the sunny-spring-that-wasn't, I'm probably looking at five. The trade-off is that this plant has staying power, and it gets better (and more deeply rooted) with time. It's a good idea to plant it permanently and fill in with more mobile perennials while it lumbers along till three feet wide.
This exhaustive sales pitch notwithstanding, you also need to know about the cross between B. alba and B. australis that's named 'Purple Smoke' - a dark-legged beauty with a head of smoky violet blooms, introduced by the North Carolina Botanical Garden and Niche Gardens of Chapel Hill. I hesitate to shout too loudly because it's hard to get a hold of, but guess what: So is the white wild form. All the more reason for you to join me in whining about its absence, in the hope that nursery folks will shut us up by giving this plant a try.