Me and my Baptisia, or How to kill the Perennial Plant of the Year


The Perennial Plant Association recently announced their choice of Baptisia australis as the next Perennial of GS-baptisia400 the Year, and garden writers are asking: Had any experience with this?  You bet I have.  I've killed two of them and given up on the third.

To learn more about the plant and figure out why mine have performed so poorly, let's turn to the PPA press release:

  • "Showy native species" – yes, indeed, and I've blogged  about that.  Seen at full size and in flower, it's irresistible, as you can imagine from this photo taken from a public garden.
  • "Very easy to grow," and "very long-lived".  But read on.
  • "Best left undisturbed and tends to resent transplanting."

Which gets to the reason that mine have failed, I think.  Like all perennials in my garden, the Baptisias have been subjected to several moves.  So my Top Tip for Growing this PPA winner is:  Know where you want it to be at its full size, plant it there and never, ever move it.

But here's what the PPA says about its landscape uses:  "Because of its commanding size, this
shrub-like perennial makes a beautiful specimen on its own or in small
groupings. It is commonly used as a backdrop in perennial borders, but
also works well in native or meadow plantings."

See the dilemma for a gardener who cares about design?  Stick a bunch of tiny, slow-growing perennials at the rear of the border and wait years for them to look like background plants?  Or put a starter plant in a spot that's perfect for a big specimen and wait years for the desired effect?  Not bloody likely in my garden. 

I see that gardeners at Dave's Garden had better luck with it than I, though. Good for them.


  1. I have four or five of these plants and they are wonderful. It does NOT take them years to reach a substantial size. It is true they cannot be moved. I wish I could post a photo of mine. They are gorgeous in the spring, when they bloom; have a greenish-blue foliage that is pretty all summer and then produce marvelous black, rattling seed pods in fall. I am so glad this plant is getting the attention it deserves!

  2. I bought a baptisia australis at a plant sale about six years ago and planted it in the wrong place (of course), but it is so handsome that I have left it there because I had read that it would resent being moved. When it blooms, it is spectacular and passers-by often stop to ask me what it is. It’s a tall plant even when young and increases in girth rather than height, so it has presence right from the beginning. Its shoots in spring look a little like asparagus. Great plant!

  3. Oh my goodness! where to begin? Been enjoying, growing and selling BFI’s for years.Have bazillions of stories and adventures about BFI’s. I find you’ve got about a year to change your mind before the roots plunge down deeply – unless you’ve got Extremely compacted boulder clay soil. Seven years ago when we moved our entire flower farm we were sure we’d have to sacrifice our 70 foot row of BFI’s. But when we dug a few up turns out the soil was SO compacted we could and did successfully transplant the entire row!This was a total fluke so don’t try this at home kids!
    Can’t say enough about these great plants. Foliage is great for floral design work as are the elegant blue spikes. In the WFF demo garden we have them growing as a giant divider hedge that folks regularly remark upon.

  4. I love my Baptisia. It is a show stopper when in bloom and the foliage stays nice when it isn’t blooming. Plus, if you cut some of the blooms to enjoy indoors, you can often get a second flush of bloom from the plant. Love it. Great choice for PPY.

  5. I planted about two dozen of them last year, a few bought, some gifted (as in transplanted) and most grown from seed.

    The transplanted ones were already quite large plants and though I had read and heard they won’t transplant, everyone of them put up new growth almost immediatley. They did not come out of the ground with fully intact root systems and were cut back to the main stems for the move. If they return in the spring I know the transplant will have been successful and will dispense with the conventional wisdom about them.

  6. 4 Seasons ago I bought 3 plants from a well known mail order nursery and planted them in a correct condition location. These were essentially bareroot buys and they did not reappear for a second season. Two seasons ago I replanted 3 more in same locations. These were potted plants where the roots were not much disturbed during transplanting. This past season all 3 are still alive and one bloomed. The 3 achieved different heights. The one that bloomed reached about 3 feet. The jury is still out but I have hopes.

  7. I have baptisia that have been limping along for years in my sandy soil. Then, last year, the coldest, rainiest summer in memory in my part of the world, two plants of ‘Twilight Prairie Blues’ suddenly exploded to five feet tall! Of course, totally blocking everything behind them and messing with my planting scheme completely.

    I thought, “I have to move those next spring.” Now, you’re telling me I’m probably going to kill them in the attempt?

    Clearly, this is a plant that does best with deliberate characters.

  8. I have one with white blossoms. It’s got great structure — no staking required. I wouldn’t put it at the back of a border, however, as it grows into a round shape, and it’s not nearly as tall as true back-of-the-border perennials.

  9. What I remember about Babtisia from Chicago Botanic:
    – Baptisia is a prairie plant with a deep taproot to survive fire and drought
    – Baptisia will not tollerate wet feet or overly clay-y soil

    My own experience:
    – Baptisia will reseed baby plants all over
    – Baptisia gets big, just move the other plants because you can’t move it.

  10. When the judges were nominating their favorite plants for this award they must have left out their west coast/ California associates because this plant is rarely found growing there.
    As a former east coast gardener though, this is a fantastic work horse of a plant for the east and midwest herbaceous border, in Mediterranean California , not so much.

  11. Baptisia is a beautiful native prairie plant; the “australis” is native to a bit south of central Illinois, but grows well here.

    They DON’T move easily; best to leave them where they will grow for years! A mature plant can have a dozen or more flowering stems.

    Our main native species is white, looks similar (although the pods aren’t tapered like B. australis). It is also a reliable grower and bloomer. I have several of both blue and white.

    Take a trip to a prairie; they don’t grow in all prairies, of course, but the sight of a mass of them blooming is spectacular!:) Our nearby Meadowbrook Prairie had at least a thousand blooming plants last year!

  12. Any plant with a tap roots resents movement (except dandelion, but who’s asking) because they usually break. Do it in the right season, water thoroughly and protect from sun and you might keep it alive after moving it. Russian Sage is like this, but I’ve moved it successfully -once!

    Such a lovely plant, put it in the back and wait for it.

  13. Thanks, Michelle D., for clarifying that this isn’t grown in Nor. Cal. I thought just about everything grew here in the Bay Area, but this plant is totally new to me.

  14. I fell in love with the Chicago Botanic garden cultivar ‘Twilight Prarie Blue’and planted several. After one year, I moved two to a new spot. I won’t know until spring, but here’s hoping…

  15. These posts are very enlightening. My experience has been disastrous. However, last season was my first try. So, perhaps, I need to kill a few more in 2010 before I can make an informed judgement.

  16. Baptisia is spectacularly beautiful from first blue green spring sproutings to rattlely black seed-pods. I had it in my garden for several years-the first few I actually enjoyed. Then the battle began! It consumed the available space, snuffing out everything else in its way. It laughed at my attempts to keep it in bounds and even tramplings by the dogs didn’t set it back. If you plant this gorgeous plant, be very careful about where you place it and remember that it grows a very, very deep taproot. It took me a couple of years, at least, with much effort(digging out, more digging, husband digging, boiling water and repeat, finally alas plant killer poison) but I seem to have finally finished it off. One of my two serious adventures with plants intent upon garden domination. Remember very, very deep taproot and lots of seeds – be carefully beguiled!

  17. Been growing Baptisia australis for 20 years, then in the last few have added some of the more recent intros. Concur that even a small potted newbie from a nursery looks good the second season and will start looking quite shrub-like in three or four. Get ’em in the ground, Susan, since when do we more, um, mature gardeners think that three or four years is any length of time for a garden to develop?

    Plant in front of the bed, also, to break up the lower front rows. Doesn’t need to be in bloom to be gorgeous. One of its great attributes is foliage that looks splendid spring to fall.

    After four years the taproot is so long and strong you could tether a dirigible to it. If you do have to move one, dig as deep down around the taproot as possible in earliest spring or mid-fall, finally cutting the root with a bypass pruner as long as possible. If fall, cut the plant down two-thirds. I’ve moved them, they’ll be fine.

    One other thing not mentioned in the posts, Baptisia is one perennial that does best in neutral to alkaline soil. Mike Heger of Ambergate Gardens told me this. I was disappointed with my plant the first few seasons. All my soil is pH around 6.4. Then I scratched some lime around the plant, it took off. Now I add a little lime every few seasons, how much, I never know.

    Great new varieties of Baptisia from the Chicago Botanic Gardens include ‘Twilite Prairieblues’ (deep violet blooms, smaller stature), ‘Solar Flare Prairieblues’ (lemon-yellow blooms mature to an orange blush, big plant) and the coolest one, ‘Starlight Prairieblues’ periwinkle blooms with cream at the heels. I have articles and pics on my site, click on Plant Spotlight from the home page.

    Baptisia is often listed as full sun, but part sun where it receives a few hours of midday sun, it does fine. Supremely hardy to Zone 4. Member of the pea family.


  18. Michelle, maybe it doesn’t grow much in the Bay Area but I planted a small mail order clump 10ish yrs ago in my garden in the Sacramento area, and it’s been thriving ever since.

  19. Maybe this is a plant I should try again? I purchased seed and was successful in getting them to come up and grow last spring, but once in the ground, they expired. I’ll try again.

  20. I have several baptisia. They take 2 years to be 3′ tall and 2-3′ wide in my alkaline clay that is damp in spring, dry in summer, damp in fall. Lovely blue foliage. Great May flowers here in Nebraska ( I have a fall garden so spring flowers are a nice thing ). It appears Mr. Renegade is correct–and everyone should also order plants from Ambergate Gardens. Love them.

  21. I’ve been growing them for more than 20 years, and the cool color of the leaves is relief on even the nastiest August afternoon. True, they resent being moved, but they self seed — just be careful in the spring when you clean things up. The self-seeders have been better at choosing the right spot than I have.

  22. Baptisia will reseed baby plants all over the place. I have had one for probably 20 years. Saw it in a garden and ordered it from don’t know where. Mine needs staking or it flops all over the place. I just decreased it by about 2/3’s, dugout the outside part. See how much comes up this spring.

  23. Kandi don’t be too sure they’ve expired. I’ve had a new one feign death one summer only to start growth in the summer of the following year. Keep an eye out for them.

  24. And I tried it in So. Calif. 25 years ago in an allotment public garden, before the concept of winter chill hours was on my radar and I was trying to grow every perennial in the White Flower Garden catalogue in a small plot amongst hard-core community vegetable gardeners. It grew and bloomed. Haven’t tried it since for reasons stated by S. Harris and very limited growing space now.

  25. I have killed three baptisia. Good sun, regular dirt, never moved. Rabbits have been a problem – killed one. These are more finicky than people let on. Finally last year I had success and it grew 18 inches or so. No flowers, but hey, perennials usually don’t flower for a couple of years anyway. However, if it doesn’t make it through the winter no more baptisias!

  26. I have a love-hate relationship with this plant. It’s beautiful when in bloom. It does reseed all over the place (a nuisance) and gets very floppy as the season progresses. Then you have to remove the seedpods at season-end or you’ll get more seedlings. It grows large in my clay-ey alkaline soil (S. Indiana). I have read that baptisia does really well in clay soil. My experience supports that.

Comments are closed.