|False Indigo is the tall plant on the left|
On a visit to Storrowton Village Museum in Massachusetts a few years ago, I found a lovely surprise in their Colonial American garden: False Indigo, also called Baptisia or wild indigo. The reason I was pleasantly surprised was due to the fact I had this plant in my home garden in the Midwest and it was one of my favorites.
I learned a few things about False Indigo from the Museum Director at Storrowton, Dennis Picard. The plant with thick stems, long spikes of leaves and pea-like blooms were used by the early native Americans and the colonists as a blue dye. The plant is native to North America and, though the dye was a pale comparison to the rich blue of Indigofera plants from the tropics, it served its purpose to provide color for the colonist’s textiles. And it was certainly more accessible.
Since blue was a favorite hue for clothing, cultivation of the Baptisia in the colonies was encouraged by the English government in the 1700’s. Native Americans used the plant as an ingredient in their medicines but this was perhaps not the best purpose since most of the plant is mildly poisonous. Perhaps that is why False Indigo is deer resistant.
While the blue flowers of the plant might lead some to assume the pigment is derived from the flowers, it was actually extracted from the leaves, specifically the leaves of the Baptisia tinctoris, that bears yellow flowers rather than blue.
Although it was a very functional plant for the early colonists, it’s the beauty of the perennial itself that captures my heart every spring. It weaves its thick stalk out of the moist soil and unfolds its leaves slowly. Soon the buds appear and the lovely blue color thrills me every time.
The amazing transformation in fall is startling as the flowers dry into long pods that turn a dark black. Many cut these pod stems for use in flower arranging. I just leave them to decorate my English garden.
When I first planted my False Indigo, the area was quite sunny. Now the maple tree nearby has spread it’s growing branches to provide a bit too much shade, causing the plant to shy away from growing too tall. I’d like to transplant it to a sunnier locale, but they say these beauties dislike being moved.
Perhaps I’ll just need to borrow a few seeds from the pods and plant them far away from the maple. And once again, watch this Colonial American beauty shine its beautiful foliage and blue flowers, and remind me anew of its history in Early America.
Elaine Marie Cooper is the author of Road to Deer Run (Book 1, Deer Run Saga), Fields of the Fatherless and Bethany's Calendar. Her upcoming releases in 2016 include Promise of Deer Run (Book 2) in June, Saratoga Letters in October, and Legacy of Deer Run (Book 3) in December. You can find her on her website at http://www.elainemariecooper.com