I first saw Amsonia when I visited the Lurie Gardens during the Chicago Spring Fling in '09. While everyone's eyes were drawn to the river of salvia running through Piet Oudolf's creation, I was smitten by two plants--the lighter-purple Baptisia sprinkled through the planting and the Amsonia to the center and back right of this photo. I vowed to plant them in my own garden, and within a year I had one of each.
Amsonia tabernaemontana is a 1-3 foot tall perennial that forms large, multi-stemmed clumps topped with star-like flowers that one source calls "a heavenly shade of blue."
Other important info about this plant:
- Blooms from mid-spring to early summer, lasting about a month
- Full sun to light shade; moist conditions (I rarely give it extra water)
- Tolerates most types of soil, including clay, rocky, and sandy
- Zones 3-9
- Nectar of the flowers attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, and various long-tongued insects.
- Foliage contains a white latex that is toxic, thus it is usually avoided by deer and rabbits.
One source recommends cutting Amsonia back after flowering, probably to avoid its reseeding itself, but why wouldn't you want even more of these plants?? Besides, in the fall the foliage turns a lovely golden color, and later its paler yellow foliage stands out in the snow, waving in the cold winds of winter.
There is one characteristic I left out, however, and one which I wish I had known sooner--Amsonia has a large taproot. Last year my plant had grown to a nice size, and its foliage made a nice addition to the garden. But I decided it was too big where I had it in the lily bed and would look better with more open space in the arbor bed. Finally, a few weeks ago I set about digging it out. The dry soil didn't help, but after some time digging, tugging, and saying a few choice words, that Amsonia wouldn't budge from the ground. I admitted defeat and replaced all the loose dirt, hoping I hadn't damaged any smaller roots in the process. However, my husband had apparently been watching part of this process--or maybe he had heard me muttering in frustration--and came over to help. I said, "No, this thing is staying put! I give up!" But there is some primeval instinct in the male, I believe, that compels him to prove his physical superiority whenever possible, and my husband insisted he could dig out this tough plant.
After even more vigorous digging and tugging--and one broken spade later--the amsonia was finally pried from its resting place. The darned thing was so heavy I could barely lift it! But that's when my husband got another bright idea--why not divide it since it was so big? Chopping with various tools barely made a dent in the plant until my husband brought out the axe. Several swings later, the original plant was now two, which were planted on opposite ends of the arbor bed.
My original plant was a division from the Idea Garden, but I didn't participate in digging that one out and dividing it; had I seen the process, I probably would never have attempted to move my own. Still, I'm glad I finally was able to move the amsonia, but there is a downside--the two divisions are still recovering from the move, and the show of blooms in my favorite shade of blue I had anticipated this spring will probably be pretty paltry. But I'm hoping the plants are happy in their new homes and will do better next year--they'd better, because they are not going to be moved again!
Amsonia tabernaemontana is the only native amsonia in Illinois. However, there are a few other species, including the 2011 Perennial Plant of the Year, Amsonia Hubrichtii. H. has similar characteristics and growing conditions to its cousin, though it is hardy only to zone 5. The most noticeable difference is its more delicate foliage with leaves that are more narrow and thread-like and which turn a stunning golden color in the fall. I added one hubrichtii to the arbor bed last year; it hasn't been too impressive so far, but sources on these natives say to be patient. Maybe next year I'll finally have those masses of blue blooms I've been waiting for.
Before this Wildflower Wednesday that's really Friday post turns into a Wildflower Sunday post, I have to show off the other plant I was enthralled with during that long-ago visit to the Lurie Gardens--my Baptisia australis is just beginning to bloom! Like Amsonia, this native also has a large taproot and doesn't like to be moved, but both of these plants well deserve a place in any garden, especially in a Prairie Garden.
Wildflower Wednesday is hosted the fourth Wednesday of every month by Gail of Clay and Limestone. Not only is Gail the promoter of pollinator-friendly gardens, but she is also a generous gardener. One of her favorite native perennials, Phlox pilosa, better known as the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox, is gracing my garden this spring as well as many others across the country. Visit her for a look at other native and wildflower favorites.