In this video from our Gardening Unplugged series, Tony Avent takes guests on a walk around the garden and talks about the baptisia breeding program at Plant Delights Nursery and Juniper Level Botanic Garden. He also answers questions about voles, deer, mulch, and funding the endowment that will make sure JLBG is around for future generations. Gardening Unplugged are free talks provided for guests during our 8 open house weekends through the year.
Baptisias that Tony mentions in this video:
- Baptisia sphaerocarpa
- Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’
- Baptisia 'Carolina Moonlight'
- Baptisia leucophaea
- Baptisia arachnifera
- Baptisia australis
- Baptisia minor
- Baptisia alba
- Baptisia 'Lightning Rods'
- Baptisia 'American Goldfinch'
- Baptisia 'Lemon Meringue'
- Baptisia perfoliate
- Baptisia 'Blonde Bombshell'
- Baptisia ‘Dark Net’
- Baptisia albescens
- Baptisia 'Blue Bunchkin'
- Baptisia 'Yellow Towers'
- Baptisia 'Lighthouse'
Okay, all right, I think we're ready for baptisias. So, I'd like to welcome everybody this morning as we do these Gardening Unplugged talks. We'll walk around for about 15 minutes, it'll be a little bit of walking because we don't have all the baptisias in one area, and we like to make these interactive so please feel free to chime in. So, I'll start standing here beside a baptisia. Now the danger in doing a specific plant talk is you get two to three days near 90 and then all the flowers go over so there's not as much in bloom as we had planned but we'll have to walk a little more to find you more things to look at.
Baptisia, a US native perennial
Baptisias are a US native plant, they only occur in the US. They occur from the Canada border all the way south to the Mexican border and pretty much everywhere in between, primarily east of the Mississippi. You find a few in a little bit west, but generally the majority of them are east. The species come in white, yellow, and blue. Those are really the three colors and so everything we see is hybrids happen in between those. These are members of the legume family so they're in the same family as peas, peanuts, and that type thing. They are extremely long lived and there's a lot of myths about baptisias - one that they can't be moved. They absolutely can be moved. They can be moved in the middle of summer, the time that you think you would not want to move them, that's the only time you can move them. If you tried to move them now, you're probably not going to be successful. If you wait till July and August, the heat of the summer, they move great. They do have very extensive roots, so I tell most people - plant them where you think you want to leave them, because their roots are really, really thick and that's why they're incredibly drought tolerant. Where you find them in the wild is generally in the prairies or prairie remnants where it can go long periods without rain. The first time I went to collect them in the wild, back in the mid 90's, we were an hour north of Dallas, they had had 40 days in a row over a hundred. They had no rain for three months. The baptisias looked great. So, it is as drought tolerant a plant as you will ever imagine.
"Anything less than four to six hours, you're just not going to get good bloom."
What it really needs is full sun. Anything less than four to six hours, you're just not going to get good bloom. It'll grow, and many times you'll see them growing at the edge of forest, but that's where the forests are encroaching in, and the blooms gradually go downhill from there. The neat thing about baptisias that I first realized when I was going in Oklahoma, after some heavy rains, is they were growing in what they call bar ditches. So, the ditches where the water would be two foot deep. So, to see them standing in water really brought home to me that man these must be incredibly tolerant and what we've done, we've planted some as marginal aquatics and they've been in for 15 years and they're fantastic. So there not many plants that you can grow with cactus or with pitcher plants and baptisias are one of those. They're really amazing.
The beginning of baptisia breeding
So, this is one of the yellow species called Baptisia sphaerocarpa. Sphaerocarpa refers to the seed pod. So, it basically says the seed pod looks like a spear and that's what it does. Most of them are very long seed pods but these are very round. Now you can grow baptisias from seed and if it is a wild species and you have it isolated from other baptisias they will come completely true from seed. If you have it near another baptisias they are incredibly promiscuous, and you will get a wide range of things. You'll get some really interesting colors, and you get some really doggy colors. I mean, just some muddy browns and yucky stuff. Up until the 90s, there were no named cultivars of baptisias. And what happened at the UNC Botanic Garden in Chapel Hill, the late Rob Gardner realized, in their habitat garden, they had Baptisia minor and Baptisia alba. Minor is blue, alba is white. And he sees this tall, spiked plant with purple flowers and realized that they had hybridized between the two and the first one was named 'Purple Smoke'.
"Up until the 90s, there were no named cultivars of baptisias."
Okay, now there are also two ways in which baptisias... well, three ways, in which baptisias flower. One is spikes, upright spikes, like the first one we saw. This is one called Baptisia leucophaea. This one, the flowers are horizontal, and this is the earliest. This thing is typically in bloom the first of March, so this is a month before any other baptisia. And this particular one's native really through the Midwest all the way down into Texas. This is our collection down on the Texas/ Mexico border and this has a creamy flower. It is really attractive, but you got to have it in a place you can see it. A lot of times, I tell people if you put them on the ground, you're not going to see it because the flower already lays down. But here - it's much, much nicer. This is not a really good one to breed with because then you get flowers that are sort of halfway in between, they can't figure if they want to stand up or fall. So, as a breeder, we try not to use that but, on its own, it's really neat.
Baptisia arachnifera, the rarest baptisia
The rarest of all the baptisias is this - this is Baptisia arachnifera. This is the spiderweb baptisia this is also the smallest of the baptisias. This will never get much more than this and never gets much more than this. So, if you want one that stays small, this is your plant. Now, we looked at one that had horizontal flowers and one that upright flowers this has axillary flowers. So, the flowers actually form... it has a tiny spike, but the flowers typically form in the leaf axles and there's only a couple of species that do that. This is a federally endangered native, so this is the rarest of the rare. We're probably the only nursery in the world that produces this, and we can't even ship it out of state. You have to buy it on site. And this flowers a month after all the other baptisias. So, you've got mid-season, early, and very late. Despite being it's only native to two counties on coastal Georgia it's only place in the world it grows and yet it's hardy up just outside of Chicago. So, it's a pretty amazing thing, has much more hardiness than you would think. This is Baptisia arachnifera, which means spider web, so if you feel the leaves, the leaf is very hairy. So, it looks... it's got this beautiful gray hair so feel that, pass it around. So, it feels like a spider web. Oh, it would certainly grow into central Florida at least. It's certainly a good Zone 9. Where it's native, it's probably on the borderline of 8 and 9. So, it's a really amazing plant and despite being in a much warmer area, it's one of the latest ones to emerge, which is really interesting. What we find, is the further south a baptisia is native, the later it comes up. Which is weird, you would think with the hot weather it would want to come up early and do its blooming like most plants, but baptisias are weird like that.
"...the further south a baptisia is native, the later it comes up."
Q: What color are the blooms?
A: This one is yellow.
Q: How long does it bloom for?
A: It depends on how many 90 [degree] days you have... 90-degree days you have in April. Typically, you're getting... you're going to get a good three weeks. If it's cool weather, you can get an extra week or two. If it's really hot like that, you might get two and a half weeks. So, it's a spring bloomer... it's not something... and then a lot of them have very attractive seed pods. So, you do have multi seasons of interest and baptisias are sort of like perennial shrubs because they get pretty big mass, so they fill in the garden the shape of a shrub, okay.
Baptisia australis & Baptisia minor, the only blue flowered baptisias
There are only two blue flowered species - Baptisia australis, which is the most commonly sold baptisia, and Baptisia minor, which very few people know. This is Baptisia minor. It's basically half the size of Baptisia australis. Baptisia australis is a beast, I mean it is absolutely huge. Minor has got a really interesting distribution. It's primarily Midwest - Nebraska, Oklahoma, into Texas - but there's a small population in Alabama and there's a small population in Durham, North Carolina. So, if you're looking for something from North Carolina, this is one of the plants. This one in particular here is our collection from, I was telling you north of Dallas in a little town called McKinney. I like it because it's really compact, and the leaves are much smaller than Baptisia australis so textually it's a really wonderful plant. It's fairly early, you can tell that's already passed, it has the largest seed pods of any baptisia. The seed pods are enormous and they're really attractive on the plants. Now one thing I will talk about [regarding] seed is you have to understand, baptisia, if you let the seed drop, they're going to come up and you're going to have a range of colors as I mentioned earlier. So, what we will do, we will allow the seeds to stay on there until they start turning and they will actually turn black, most of the species, when they're ripe. Once they do that, before they break, we cut them and discard them because we don't want them seeding around the garden, but we enjoy the pods themselves as being a fascinating part of baptisias.
So, here is an example this is one of our hybrids that we introduced, this is 'Lightning Rods'. This one, when it gets tall, will mature out about four and a half almost five feet tall. And so, we've crossed the yellow genes [that] came from the first one we saw, sphaerocarpa, and then we used the tall white one, called alba, to lighten that up and give a much better [color]. This thing, if you were here a week ago, was absolutely incredible. There are two things breeders breed for: some like the foliage like minor, down to the ground. We actually, in our breeding, try to give it what we call bare legs because we like to be able to plant underneath it. We think it's pretty neat to be able to plant two plants in the same space, so we have selected, based on the parenting we use, to get very tall spikes and flowers up above that. So, it's a place for both of those in the garden. Right behind me, you're seeing one that again, over the last two or three weeks, has been incredible. This is a new one called 'American Goldfinch', very similar to one called 'Lemon Meringue’ which has been out there, a little bit bigger. But look at the size, this is almost six foot across. So, when you plant a baptisia, you've got to look at the size and be sure you get it in the right place because, if not, it's going to eat other plants around it. Now you can come in, as we were discussing earlier, and clip off some of those side branches, doesn't hurt the plant, but you're going to be doing that a lot because it's going to continue to grow. So, you're really better off to get it in the right place.
What I want to do now, since we don't have a lot blooming up here, is walk down to our breeding bed. It's a little bit of a walk, it's right here at the bottom of the parking lot. So, if you’re still interested, let's walk over there and show you a lot more that's still in bloom.
All of our beds, except where the cactus are, are 50% native soil, 50% compost. When we have cactus and agaves in there, we take that mix and we mix that 50% with Permatill, which is the popped slate that is mined here in North Carolina. So, the components of that would wind up being 50% Permatill, 25% native soil, 25% compost.
Baptisias are tough
And the baptisias, they love... they will grow in this if you loosen it up a little bit. They don't mind growing in gravel. They will grow in sand, they'll grow in clay, they'll grow in muck... there's pretty much not a soil that baptisias will not grow in. They will grow in acidic soils; they will grow in alkaline soils. Just in terms of... just a tough plant, it is so hard to beat.
Q: So, the major requirement is sun?
A: Sun. Sun is the key. If you've got sun, you're going to have luck with baptisias.
Pest wise, there's not a lot. There is one native caterpillar that has been bad actually the last three or four years. 30 years prior, never saw one. So, it's like with anything, they're cyclical, but you can certainly dust with DiPel and those are fine.
So, this is one of our research areas. This is where we actually do our breeding of baptisias so I'm going to start with showing you the other odd species that has the axillary flowers, and this is Baptisia perfoliata. This is an endemic to Interstate 20 in South Carolina. Only place it grows. If you drive down I20, you will see this when you get near Aikin on the side of the road. Perfoliata is an interesting word. Perfoliata means the stem runs through the middle of the leaf instead of beside it. So, you can see, this is really a fascinating thing. This one dries incredibly in the fall. It is one of the best dried arrangement plants you can imagine. If you don't harvest it, it'll actually dry and break off midwinter and do like tumbleweeds and start rolling through the garden. So, it's really neat but you see each flower it's the solitary flower at the base of the leaves. So, pass that along that's a really interesting one. It's a really tough one to breed with and get anything attractive. It takes us... we're now on our third generation trying to do that.
"If you've got sun, you're going to have luck with baptisias."
Well, what we do... we do two things. We put the plants beside each other that we want to cross. So, it's called redneck breeding and then if we have something that's not beside each other we will then take cuttings, propagate it, and then we have a research field that we take and we do isolation blocks. And then we plant two or three together. So, if we're trying to produce a red, we would take and put a brown, and a yellow, and orange together and then we get our reds. So, there's a lot of... there's a lot of work that goes on without actually hand making the crosses to make it work. But you can see some of the different forms. See, this is what we like here is trying to get things shrunk down. We've actually got a whole block of dwarfs now; we're working on things that are two feet or smaller because there really is nothing like that now. But this would be more like classic alba. So that's what we talked about. So, if you saw our white towers two weeks ago it looked like this. Whereas you can see this one right here, the short one, that we know that's got the Baptisia minor that we looked at earlier because that's the really round compact form. 'Blonde Bombshell' is one of our early introductions and that's a fairly small one as baptisias go. So, this would have been an introduction, this would have been 2007. So that's a 15-year-old clump.
Q: Ever see any variegated foliage show up?
A: You're looking at it right there. That's okay, that's why I'm grabbing it. Yes, we do. It's... and we've got good variation, we just can't get the flower spikes up. As a breeder, it's really frustrating because you'll get one trait you like but you can't get the second trait. So, it's been really tough to get really good tall spikes. The color is good, I got blue, which would be fantastic on this, but I want it to be this tall. So that's.... we're still working. We're working on color of stems. A lot of the ones that we've selected, when they emerge, the stems are dark purple. Which we think is a fantastic trait. So, in our isolation blocks we're working on that. You're seeing a lot here that have been trashed. So, what we do, is we come in and we flag, almost every day, and anything with the red flag we dig out immediately because we don't want those genes mixing because that has turned out not to be a good plant. And it typically will take us three years to make a decision on the plant. A few we can do first year, if it's ugly color, that goes, but most often three years before we really know what the plant's going to look like.
Q: What do you think the ratio is? 1 out of 100? 1 out of 400? Where you find one that's worthy of naming?
A: We typically would start with about... we grow a lot of seed. We transplant right at 5,000 and we go through several cullings during the process. By the time we plant it out, we try not to plant more than about... anywhere from 250 to 500. So, we cull all the way through because yeah you can't you just can't plant that many. So, you got to be really, really particular but you're seeing that you know how some of these are just coming into bloom now. So, we love that that we've got some that were in bloom three four weeks ago and then we're just continuing that season. I don't think a lot of people realize that there is a wide range, depending on the genetics. We've got some genetics in here that originated in Leroy, Minnesota. Those don't come out of the ground till late May so it's...
Q: We're from Minnesota.
A: Are you?
Q: What about deer resistance?
A: They are... they are pretty damn resistant to most things that eat. One of the really neat things... when we got started looking at baptisias in the wild, we found what's called the baptisia monograph. Do you know what monographs are? Monographs are what somebody writes about one genus of plants and it's generally somebody that has no social life whatsoever because it's just an incredible deep dive. So, the baptisia monograph was written a by a woman botanist in 1939, which is pretty incredible. There were some really neat women botanists back in the 30's. So, Mary Larisey writes, and she documented where every population in the U.S. was. It's an incredible piece. So, we took her work, and we went back out. Now 1939 - today, that's a lot of years. the cool thing about it is baptisias are not eaten by livestock and most of the places are huge farms and you can go in there and they have eaten everything there except the baptisias which is great. So, baptisias are seriously unpalatable to livestock and deer, in most cases, act sort of like livestock in terms of how they eat. Yes, yes it was really amazing to see you would see an entire field and you could just spot the baptistias from a half mile away because everything else was eaten within inch of his life so
"Baptisias are seriously unpalatable to livestock and deer..."
Q: If you plant it near a spreading [ ] like a zoysia, and the zoysia spreads in there, is the zoysia going to kill the plant? Or...
A: That's a very good question. Typically, I would say that's not a good idea because the root system of the grass competes, but baptisia has such a massive, incredibly deep root system I actually think they would grow. It's... I mean there is a competition, no question, and baptisias, I believe, would be one of the very few plants that could compete well with that. Because, like I say, those roots are just incredibly tough.
But you can just get an idea of some of the ones... Now really, the neat thing right there, that's one we introduced a few years ago, the white one with no leaves, straight through there. That's called 'Dark Net'. Now that comes from Baptisia albescens which in the wild, leafs out and blooms with no foliage and the foliage comes later. So, we think, as a designer, that's a really interesting trait. We're also working on things that where the baptisias change colors. I don't know if you see on this little one here, they actually emerge white and age to pink or to mauve, which is really neat.
Q: This purple one back there that is short? It's almost like the bottlebrush kind of....is that the same as this one behind you?
A: Yes, similar genetics. Yes, this is... we actually have one we introduced that looks like that, it's called 'Blue Bunchkin' and it is extraordinary. Yeah, we're trying to... the other thing we're trying to look at, that you notice, is the spacing between the flowers. And if you can get that really compact spacing, it gives you a completely different look. Yeah, yes that's a seedling, both of these, from that 'Blue Bunchkin'.
Q: Is that one behind you more of a read?
A: Yeah, it is yes. That's one of several that we're getting close to reds. We've got one that's actually even better than that. So that took years of combining the colors. We actually get the color wheel and we're like, all right, we got this color and this color how do we get to this color. And in some cases, like you're supposed to mix in brown, we didn't have brown, so we had to first create a brown to get to a red. So, it's... we've been doing this for probably a couple decades now and i think we've got some pretty amazing stuff but there's a lot still going on.
Q: That should be hard since red is a primary.
A: Yes, but there are ways to come at red through the back door.
Q: Obviously, yeah.
A: I mean, when I was in school there was only certain ways to get reds but now that they've... I don't know who figured this out, but there are actually other ways to come in and produce red. Because I was reading online when I first started, I was like yeah, primary colors, you can't really create reds. But then I dig a little deeper and it was like - oh no, you can do it by coming in through this, and this, and this. And you have to have green, so we had to create green flowers as well. So, we have some that are butt ugly but they're green and brown, so we keep those just for our breeding. So, it's a really fascinating process to do. Most of what you're seeing here are 2020's, 2021's, so these are fairly young. But you can see the roots here. This is probably a two-year-old seedling. So, I mean those roots are thick. We actually had one of our...
Q: Do the roots go down or do they go out?
A: They go down. They... I mean they will, yes, they will go out, but they go down. We had one of our original ones the really big honking blue one back there was our first introduction called 'Blue Towers' and we had that at a field grower up in Michigan and they called us after first year they said we have to drop this because it goes so deep it broke our digging equipment on the tractor. And this is a baptisia grower and they had never had one like that. So, we really have designed these things so that they, once you have them, they're there.
Q: That would make moving them in July or August very hard.
A: Well, I didn't say they were easy to move in July and August I said they could be moved. No, no, you will need to be in really good shape or find someone in really good shape to be able to move these.
This is 'Yellow Towers', that's one of our earlier introductions. The real tall one up at the top, the white one, that's one we introduced, I think this year, last year. That's called 'Lighthouse'. So that actually will top out at about five and a half feet tall. So that's the tallest of all.
But I hope this gives you a little idea of what's possible with the group. Do we have any other questions?
Q: So, you said they'll grow in just about any kind of soil?
A: As long as it's sunny.
Q: Okay, so you just... do you have to plant them deep? i mean...
A: No, you plant the same... you want the level of soil in the pot to be the same as in the ground.
Q: Okay no you're not tossing any fertilizer or anything like that?
A: We don't ever do that. We do... we like to build beds. Now, the better you treat them, the better they're going to grow but baptisias are insanely tough. You want to provide air when you're digging your hole, that's the key, is give air. We don't use chemical fertilizers anywhere in the ground. We do everything organic. So, if you need a fertilizer, something like Plant-Tone or any other organic that you like is great. But baptisias are legumes. So, what do they do? They pull nitrogen out of the air. They fix it. The air we're breathing is 78 percent nitrogen. Why should we be buying fertilizer? That's really bizarre. If we don't kill all the microbes in the soil, the microbes will pull the nitrogen out and baptisias are again, being legumes, they got that covered.
Q: I have a lot of vetch in the garden and my neighbor says she just leaves it because it fixes nitrogen. Is that a good idea?
A: There are a lot of weeds that fix nitrogen. In the grand scheme of things, okay, if you're out there looking for things that fix nitrogen - vetch, clover, is great. If you're trying to garden, they suck. I can't I fathom why anyone would want to have... to leave... a weed. Yes, there are plenty of things that do-good things; but do you want them in your garden? No. If you got a wild field, let the clover and the vetch grow, it's great. But yeah, and vetch is also an invasive, so vetch is not something that you want to encourage. Even the highway departments that used to plant it have now been told that really was not a good idea.
Q: What do you have your beds topped with?
A: This is just... our local town... the residents evidently are not gardeners because they pay the city to have someone come by and get all their leaves they rake up, which are nothing but fertilizer, and they rake it to the curve and then they bring it to us. So, we don't have to buy this because somebody has paid somebody to bring it to us. So, we think that's pretty bizarre. So, this is nothing but the leaves from the town of Garner. So, it's a great mulch and you know we don't have to worry about the aesthetics over here so if it was in the garden, we'd use a more fine mulch that had a more attractive appeal but the plants don't care.
Other questions? I hope that gives you a little idea. Yes?
A: Voles are a problem on everything, yes, absolutely voles are a huge problem. Voles will eat anything.
A: Yeah voles, just like people, if you have a hundred people and you take them to a buffet, they're not all going to eat the same thing. They're all homo sapiens, same species, so the idea that voles or deer all eat the same thing is bizarre. But you will read this online - well they don't eat this, well and then you see somebody else says - well no they eat this, and they want this of course they're not. They all have different appetites. It's fascinating how we expect a species to all have the same appetite.
So, you see in back here some of this is what we're working on dwarfs so they these are mature size. So, there's really not anything like this on the market so we're trying to fill a niche of people who like the idea of baptisias but would like something a little smaller. So, hopefully in the next three or four years we'll start making our final selections and getting these out. We've got to improve the flower quantities a little bit. But some of them, again, some of them are a little bit taller but still these are much smaller. So, when we asked earlier about the sizes, we're trying to keep these more manageable in smaller gardens.
Q: They remind me a lot of some of the salvias and the sages. Do they sort of play the same role?
A: Yes, some of the salvias can be used, as I mentioned earlier, [as] sort of a perennial shrub. Yeah, absolutely. Now obviously they do disappear in the wintertime so... but a deciduous shrub yeah absolutely, yeah.
Q: With the seed, do you have to prepare in some way before you start it?
A: No, if you sow it fresh, they will come up in two to three days. It's one of the easiest things you will ever do. The pods are about this big. Let's see if i have any pods that are about ripe. I can show you some seed, but let me see if I see a... the seeds are very small. This is... let's see, it might have a little bit of seed on it. So, that's what the pods will look like. They'll get about double that size when they're mature but it's just like if you shell peas. The seeds are quite small, but that's... those are the developing seed and when you get them, they are... they're pretty tiny so it's not like a big... not like a butter bean or something like that. And again, sow them fresh or you can refrigerate them. If you refrigerate them, if you want to sow them later. Don't leave them laying out on the desk, they'll lose their viability that way.
Q: Do you sell seeds?
A: We don't, no. There's more. We have so many. We only save seed off of very narrow range so, as I say, we would go through, we would say - all right, what's this is? Does this have a good parent? What is it near? Is it going to give us something interesting? And we would save it but typically, we would propagate from cuttings and put it in our isolation area, so we have a little more control over what it does. And the bees do a great job of baptisias. They are fantastic for bringing bees into the garden. So, we always like things that bring insects in that make our gardens more diverse and baptisias certainly do that.
"Seven years ago, we gifted all of this to NC State..."
Other questions? Yeah.
Q: This is not about baptisias, but I was wanting to understand about the endowment, and about NCSU? How you are...
A: Oh, in terms of how we're preserving all this. Yes, okay. Seven years ago, we gifted all of this to NC State, everything we own, and we have lifetime rights. So basically, things will stay this way unless I get hit by a truck or become incapacitated and then the university would take over. But, to do that, they don't have any money. So, they set us up an endowment at the university and they gave me a hat that says fundraiser. So, my job is to convince everyone to put money in the endowment. And so, this can continue in the same way it does because right now, the nursery funds all of the research, the gardens, the breeding, to right at about a half million a year. So, you know, as I get older, I'm not able to do as much, in terms of running that. So that is always in danger of, you know, if something happened tomorrow, it would be tough for this to be sustained because our endowment is not up to a level that can generate that dollar volume yet. So, it is very important. You know, I may last for another five years. I mean, I may last for another 25 years, I don't know. But it is really critical that we get that endowment built up and they pay four percent interest off the endowment so we have to have 17 million to keep our same level of funding that will allow all of this to continue. And then when we turn it over, when we make the transition, we will eliminate open houses, we will be open every day, just like... we'll be a sister to the Raulston Arboretum.
So, if that helps. So, keep your fingers crossed, tell everyone. All we need is a million people donating 17 dollars and we're there.
A: So yeah, there you go I've heard about that, hadn't tried it yet. But again, thank you all for coming thanks for your interest.