We're visiting the west entrance of Ellis Library again this week to see what's blooming in the Mizzou Botanic Gardens just outside our doors. This week, it's the spiky blooms of false indigo, or Baptisia. We have two different varieties growing here on campus, yellow and blue. Both types of false indigo were once used to make dye, but they aren't related to true indigo, which yields a very dark blue dye.
Baptisia australis, the blue-flowering species, is native to the southeastern and midwestern United States. It was illustrated in Curtis's Botanical Magazine in 1800, and there it was listed under the names Sophora australis and Podalyria australis, along with the following note: "It is a native of Carolina, and an old inhabitant of our gardens, having been cultivated by Mr. Philip Miller in 1758." By the time the white-flowered species was illustrated in 1808, the genus Podalyria had been separated from Sophora. The yellow false indigo we have here is a hybrid cultivar, but Curtis also includes a couple of other Baptisia species native to the Midwest: a yellow false indigo now called Baptisia tinctoria, and a white species, Baptisia alba.