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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Entries in baptisia australis (2)


Garden Opinions

Passionate gardeners often develop strong opinions related to their favorite pastime and there is no consensus as to the appropriateness of voicing those points of view in public. Some vociferous garden bloggers freely transmit controversial thoughts through cyberspace, to the consternation of other bloggers who remain polite and circumspect. I am one of those vociferous bloggers and there are others even more outspoken than I am.

Fifty years of gardening has given me the opportunity to develop an endless litany of opinions. Some are strong while others are simple preferences. This is not an area where I had felt the need to be diplomatic or to speak in measured phrases. To this scenario, I must add a cultural value:  My mother’s family spoke in hyperbole and used intense metaphors when expressing their thoughts. They also inflected their voices when it became necessary to convey dramatic intent, which was almost every day.

When I began blogging, I perpetuated this family tradition by speaking out colorfully when I felt it was appropriate. That tendency did not sit well with the people whom I admire, namely some of my fellow garden bloggers. One of the interesting phenomena of cyberspace has been the development of cyber-norms that encourage bloggers to be polite and somewhat self-effacing. Not only was I oblivious to the rules, but also, given my background, I found cyber-norms to be challenging.

In one area, my strong opinions have become public. It is about likes and dislikes of certain plants. These opinions are rooted in my own experiences and they are influenced both by plant behavior in the flowerbed and the contribution or distraction that a plant brings to the gardener’s master plan. This past year, I wrote disparagingly about Baptisia australis because it has been such a disappointment for me. Several fellow blogger wrote to voice their disagreement. They knew that Baptisia had been used successfully in flowerbeds and that it would make a remarkable aesthetic contribution to almost any garden.

I was surprised by the information and began to wonder why that experience had eluded me. Baptisia had been growing in a flowerbed, in the same spot for 15 years, where it remained unimpressive. The only explanation was the fact that it grew as an orphan with no relation to other plants. Recently, I moved it around until I felt that it was in a better place. That is when the garden magic kicked in. [Yes, there is such a thing! Oops, another strong opinion.] This morning, I discovered my blue Baptisia in bloom, flanked by yellow Trollius on one side together with a fading white Rose Blanc de Coubert, and with Weigela Red Prince in the background. This is a composition that speaks to me and a planting that definitely enhances Baptisia. Is this the same disappointing perennial? Clearly, I had been doing something wrong and oblivious to the error. [Yes, there can be errors in gardening. Another strong opinion!]

As it turned out, I had been growing Baptisia as a specimen, in a garden where specimen plants do not show well. Moving it was a good idea. To those readers who admonished me, ever so politely, for bad-mouthing this almost-beautiful plant, I just want to let you know that I get it, now.


About Plants That Win Awards

I am always amused to read about plants that win the Perennial of the Year Award. It is amusing because most of them are good old reliables that have been around for years. Of course, that is the whole point of the award; to encourage us to purchase plants that will validate our gardening efforts.  Another source of bemusement is the fact that some nurseries will take advantage of the newfound fame and will stock the award-winning plant only in the larger and costlier size. The height of effrontery is that some of these nurseries will also tag this plant with a price point that is higher than other plants of the same size.

Sometimes an award is well deserved. In 2008, Geranium Rozanne received the Perennial of the Year Award. For this one plant, I consider the award underwhelming because Rozanne is a triple-perennial: it does the work of three plants. At first glance, it is a colorful perennial, flowering in a very vivid shade of blue, unmatched anywhere in the garden except, perhaps, for some blue Delphiniums. Secondly, it behaves like a vine, because at maturity, its tendrils can be draped over low branches of rose bushes to create eye-catching color compositions. Again, at maturity, it is also a very effective and colorful ground cover.

One cannot heap the same praise upon this year’s selection, Baptisia australis. Are they kidding? I would never choose to place this plant in anyone’s garden with the expectation that it will behave like a flowering perennial. A mini shrub? Maybe.

The nicest thing one can say about Baptisia australis is that its foliage is sublime. The delicately shaped bluish-green leaves that cover this rounded shrub-like plant make a beautiful foil for pink, white, and yellow flowers. As well, the height of the plant is meritorious. It grows tall enough at the back of the flowerbed, to create a soft ethereal background, as effectively as any shrub.  However, one cannot praise it for the colors of its flowers; they lack saturation and consequently do not project from far. This is a weakness of many blue-flowering perennials. It does not help that blue is present in the shades of both the flower and the foliage, so that neither is able to enhance the other.

Baptisia australisAnother flaw is the temperamental nature of this plant when transplanted. It will go into trauma and will regress to a state of infancy, last observed when it was a seedling. It will remain in that state for the balance of the season and will only begin to recover, though not fully, by the next season. From the perspective of a garden designer, it is not good enough that this is a low-maintenance, drought resistant plant. Most clients demand that perennials add oomph to their gardens, something that Baptisia australis cannot do.

Baptisia Twight Prairie Blue Nevertheless, this is a very reliable plant and that is why it is this year’s winner. However, I am experimenting with its cousin, the cultivar Twilight Prairie Blues, in order to test the color saturation of its bi-colored flowers. I planted it last year but it did not bloom. Perhaps when it does, the reported color combination of a deep violet flower with a yellow keel petal will help this variety project more effectively. I have no expectation that it will be successfull in that regard because violet does not project well, either.