Every spring I marvel at the changing landscape, especially prairies that have been burned. A seemingly lifeless and brown prairie is turned black by fire and reduced to ashes. This important process removes last year’s growth, allowing the sun to warm the soil. This warmth is just what native wildflowers and grasses need to emerge from their winter slumber. They jump to life in just a few warm days, turning the charred plains emerald green.
In this new growth, there are some very recognizable plants that stand out. Indigos rise from rocky hillsides and dot the landscape in early spring with beautiful blue, white and cream flowers. They thrive in challenging environments because of their deep roots. The roots of wild indigos can be quite extensive – reaching down over ten feet deep – making them impervious to drought.
Locally, only two varieties of indigos grow in the prairies of south-central Kansas. Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor) has a stately posture. The entire plant is stiffly upright and forms a miniature canopy with the attractive blue-green foliage. The showy spires of small pea-like blooms develop in May. Later in the season, oblong brownish-black seed pods emerge providing another highlight to this beautiful wildflower. They love any sunny spot with well-drained soil. They are difficult to move once established because of the deep tap roots.
Cream Wild Indigo (Baptisia bracteata) is the other indigo found in our area. It is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom. In fact, one of the plants outside the Visitor Center is showing flower buds now, in the first week of April. The creamy-white flowers are held horizontally to the ground in long prostate clusters. Again, these flowers turn into brownish-black seed pods filled with small beans. The entire plant has a fuzzy appearance from leaves to the stem. They are tough and drought tolerant when planted in a well-drained soil with full sun.
Other nativars (cultivars of native plants) worth trying are Baptisia ‘Blue Berry Sundae’ Blue flowers, 24-36 inches tall; Baptisia ‘Cherry Jubilee’ Maroon/yellow flower, 30-36 inches tall; Baptisia ‘Lemon Meringue’ Lemon/yellow flowers, 36 inches tall; Baptisia ‘Vanilla Cream’ Pastel yellow flowers, 24-36 inches tall; Baptisia ‘Indigo Spires’ Dark Purple flowers, 36-48 inches tall; Baptisia ‘Blue Towers’ Blue flowers, 48-54 inches tall; and Baptisia ‘Pink Truffles’ Pink flowers, 30-36 inches tall. All of these varieties will be available at our upcoming plant sale in just a few weeks time.
I have always been enamored with Baptisia. They are so resilient. They effortlessly survive in the toughest conditions. To see a whole prairie dotted with indigos as far as the eye can see is amazing. The stunning beauty of these wildflowers can be brought home as well. They adapt to any sunny landscape setting. I can’t resist their charm and beauty.