Friday, April 27, 2012

Wildflower Wednesday: I've Got the Blues

Although pink and purple predominate in my garden, my favorite color is blue.  But as any gardener will tell you, a true blue bloom is hard to find.  Most plants advertised in catalogs as having blue blooms are actually more of a purple.  One of the first perennials I bought several years ago was the Hydrangea Macrophylla 'Endless Summer,' which can have gorgeous light blue flowers.  In my naivete as a beginning gardener, I didn't realize that without amending my soil to make it more acidic, those mounds of blue would be replaced by pink ones the next year.  There is one plant, however, that has flowers the perfect color of the sky year after year without any work by the gardener--Amsonia.

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.


  1. Hi all, thanks for stopping by. It's been a very busy week here at the "Prairie," and I haven't had much time to read blogs, but I hope to have time to return visits over the next few days. Have a great weekend!

  2. I also love blues, purples and pinks.
    Most of the flowers you've shown don't feature in our gardens here. Its always good to look at different plants and environments.
    It is raining non stop here & very cold. This has gone on for days.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  3. So glad you shared your experience of dividing the amsonia. I will not try it at all. I'm glad they are both recovering. I have them here in my garden and it is true you have to wait a few years for the hubrictii to reach its potential but it is worth it! This past weekend I tried to divide a mature baptisia. It was a big mistake as I failed. The two stems I attacked broke away from the woody root with no roots and I still could not divide the original plant. I'll never do that again. I do think though if the amsonia and baptisia are less than one year old they can be moved easily and even divided. I think the Lurie is awesome!

  4. Your natives are beautiful!
    We need rain too....calling on the Rain Dragons....
    I understand dividing plants...seems I alway need something moved. My husband does the digging, I stand and cheer him on. I point to where I think plant will do better..
    This post was filled with great information.
    Thank you!
    The Baltimore Orioles arrived yesterday!
    I need to grow grapes for them!

  5. The Amsonia is a very beautiful plant. The light blue is so gorgeous.
    Your story of digging it out was amazing. I hope you like's her new restplace.
    Have a great weekend Rose

  6. Hi Rose,

    Amsonia is beautiful, and such a lovely shade of pale blue.
    I can understand the frustration of removing plants with large tap roots. Hooray for hubby.....
    I love purple loosestrife with it's deep purple blooms, but trying to remove it is virtually impossible.

    Pretty post Rose and lots of interesting information.

    Have a lovely weekend.....

  7. I do love the Amsonia. It is truly beautiful. Those tap roots of which you speak have convinced me I won't plant it though. I couldn't dig it up if it took over, and my husband has banned me from planting any more such plants. He too has had to take an axe to a few of them before to help me dislodge something I planted and then regretted.

  8. I have heard so much about Amsonia from other gardeners I keep thinking I should find a place for it. Seems like a wonderful plant but I'm glad you mentioned the taproot. I have a terrible time keeping plants in one place and often move them several times over. I'll need to be a little more careful if I purchase this one.

  9. A very pretty plant that I hadn't really heard of before! I love the unusual sky blue color!

    I love baptisia. I tried to wintersow some seeds this year with not a lot of success - I think I might have one seedling that survived all the fluctuating temperatures!

  10. Blue is such a great color in the garden, and so hard to find. I have a blue baptisia, but it is my second. The first time around I ordered an "indigo", and the deep purple flowers are so similar in color to the leaves that you often can't tell it's blooming. So I had to find space for a second one, with a truer blue.

    I have just ordered an Amsonia (blue ice) based on your post here :-)

  11. What a struggle to move and divide that amsonia. I have three growing too big for their site at the corner of my house, and I guess I am never going to move them! How pretty the flowers are... and you captured a lovely soft photo, they are actually hard to photograph well. It's a subtle flower on a very non-subtle monster plant!

  12. Rose, PPPP looks beautiful! Thank you for the kind words and the delightful post on Amsonia! I was going to write about it for WW, but am glad to read your story of the ax treatment instead! Go B go! xogail

  13. Great story about moving your amsonia. It was in the Lurie Garden that I fell in love with baptisias, amsonias and geums. I don't have any geums yet. Hmmm. Thanks for your lovely pictures and visiting on Wildflower day.~~Dee

  14. Both are lovely choices! My sister-in-law was asking about her Blue Star Flower Amsonia. I was able to ID it for her, but didn't know much about it. I'll send her the link to your post. I know most Hostas are ho-hum, but some varieties have beautiful blue/purple flowers that bloom in the fall. Check out Hosta of the Equinox. Beautiful shots, Rose!

  15. Hi Rose, I have a couple of blue Amsonia and agree that the foliage is a lovely golden color in fall. I have never tried to move mine and did not know about the tap root. Good to know for the future! I tried adding a white variety of Amsonia, but am not sure that it took. I am also a huge fan of Baptisia and have 2 varieties with a third going in this spring.

  16. I have been drooling over Amsonias for too long! I really need to get around to adding some. I'm jealous of your baptisia...mine have been sulking without blooming for three years now, but I'm reluctant to move them for obvious reasons! BTW-the 'Ad Rem' tulips you saw on my blog came from McClure & Zimmerman ( I liked their variety of quantities and the prices were good too.

  17. Three cheers for helpful husbands with axes in hand ready to help! What would we do without them in the garden?

    I had thought about planting Amsonia years ago when we lived in Paducah, KY. Like you said, true blue is such an elusive color in the garden, and I truly wanted some. Then I saw a warning on the catalog page, I forget which one it was (Wayside?). It warned of the plant's toxicity to mammals. At the time our granddog Rocky was living with us, and he had a bad habit of digging up or nibbling on my plants, especially when he felt like he wasn't getting enough attention. I didn't want to be held responsible for dogicide or whatever it might called. I would have been a prime suspect because I was always griping about his shenanigans.

  18. We were - or rather I was - trying to shift piles of earth in Elder Son's garden the other week (he and Husband were cutting down trees at the time) and the earth had become matted with roots. Just breaking those were hard enough so I can't imagine how you must have been fighting with that old root!

  19. Hubby to the rescue! I have called the Saint on many occasion to help with digging it the garden. I must watch him closely as he gets too macho and will harm the plant. We need good tap roots right now with this drought. Arg, it is nasty hot and dry out there and way too early for this stuff.... Pretty blues you have there....

  20. Love the garden pictures. Sorry I missed the book review.

  21. Thanks all for visiting; I apologize for not replying to each of you as I usually do. Between keeping up with garden work (i.e., weeding!) and going to grandson and granddaughter's ballgames I've had little time to blog. I'll try to catch up with everyone's posts soon.

  22. Beautiful bluestars! They are too pretty to be named Amsonia. Love that the foliage gives you pretty fall color. What a bonus.

    So jealous (nice kind of jealous) of your blue Baptisia. Mine is 'Twilite Prairie Blues' and the color is less than impressive.

    Happy growing!

  23. Wonderful wildflowers, Rose! I was cracking up reading about dividing the amsonia! Good to know they're so tough and survived their hacking!

    Our Hubrichtii has been very slow establishing itself. It was moved to a sunnier spot this spring. Hopefully it will be happier there.

    I got some seeds for tabernaemontana at Mr. Brown Thumb's Great Chicago Seed Swap at the CFGS in March. I sowed them outside and it looks like they're sprouting. I'll definitely be moving them before they settle in now that I know how tough they are!


Thanks for stopping by. I love to hear from you, so please leave a comment. I'll try to reply here, but I'll definitely return the visit.