You may have heard rumors, or you may just be waiting patiently for the news, but I have confirmed from the horse's mouth that the 2010 Perennial Plant of the Year is Baptisia australis.
You can tell your friends you read it here first. I was so quick on the draw this year, in fact, that the Perennial Plant Association hasn't even made their own formal announcement as of this writing.
But I wanted you to know now because if you are planning to buy gift certificates for your friends, your family or even yourself (self-bought gifts are so much better), be sure to tell your nurseryman or garden center that you want to be on the list to get this plant when it is offered in the spring.
But don't worry if you're too late for the holidays. The Ohio State University Trumbull County Master Gardeners traditionally offer multitudes of the Plant of the Year for sale at their annual spring event, Springtime at the Garden. The festivities are held in April at the county extension offices in Cortland.
So why the excitement over this plant? Because it's not just a plant. It's an herb, and a weed and a garden perennial, but most of all, it's blue.
You may know it as False Indigo, or perhaps you've referred to this plant as Rattlebrush or Horse Fly Weed. If you are a needlework and yarn addict, to the point of carding, spinning and plying your own homespun, you have likely used this plant as a dye. Certainly everyone else has, from Native Americans to modern textile artists.
If you are a flower-arranger or herb-grower, it's possible you carried armfuls of the plant from the garden to a shed or basement where you hung it to dry for making wreaths and centerpieces. If you are a farmer, you may have hung bunches inside the barn door to repel annoying flies. If you are a holistic healer, you may have made a poultice of the roots to use as an anti-inflammatory.
Be warned, however, that the plant has been deemed toxic and we don't recommend taking it internally, no matter what you may have heard.
The most common use of this plant by my gardener friends, however, is simply to bring blue, and plenty of it, to the garden. Baptisia is member of the Fabacea family of plants and a cousin of sweetpeas, garden peas and other legumes. Because it is a prolific bloomer that spreads to resemble a shrub and is best displayed in groups or drifts, gardeners put this plant in their perennial beds to help draw the eye from one garden room to another. Blue is a cool color and helps relax and calm, especially when it is planted in abundance. If you want a true feel-good plant, Baptisia is the one for you.
Blooming in spring, the plant produces inch-long pea-like flowers on spires that rise nearly a foot above the foliage. When the flowers fade in summer, the attractive blue-green foliage and the shrub-like shape of the plant creates a lovely backdrop for smaller perennials. By early fall, the spent flowers give way to two to three-inch long puffy seedpods that turn deep black after ripening. The seedpods remain well into winter, providing a sharp contrast to blanketing snow.
Why you should care what the Perennial Plant Association recommends is because members of the organization go through a rigorous selection process before recommending any plant to growers. After all, growers have to provide something that gardeners will buy and love, so to meet the criteria of plant of the year, the plant must be suitable for a wide range of climates and conditions, be low maintenance, pest and disease resistant and provide interest in the garden through multiple seasons. It also must be easily propagated.
You can't ask for much more than that.