Cream Wild Indigo
Baptisia bracteata bracteata
Bean family (Fabaceae)
Description: The hairy stems of this native perennial plant are recurved or sprawl along the ground. They tiller from the base of the plant and are about 2' long. The alternate compound leaves are divided into three leaflets. Each leaflet is up to 3" long and about 1" wide, rather oblanceolate in shape, although pointed at both ends. There are numerous small white hairs, and the margins are smooth. The entire plant is grey-green in color.
The showy inflorescence is about 1' long, and organized as a raceme that tends to droop toward the ground. The flowers are creamy white or light yellow, about 1" long, and look like typical large pea flowers. They bloom quite early for about 3 weeks from mid- to late spring. These are replaced by large seedpods that are quite conspicuous. The entire plant may detach from the base and blow around in the wind as a means of dispersing the seeds, like a tumbleweed. The root system consists of a stout central taproot.
Cultivation: The preference is full sun (especially during the spring), mesic to dry conditions, and loamy, sandy, or clayish soil. This plant is fairly easy to cultivate if a site is sunny and well-drained, but it develops slowly, so some patience is required. Like other wild indigos, this is a long-lived plant when conditions suit it, but can be difficult to move once it becomes established.
Range & Habitat: Cream Wild Indigo occurs in scattered locations throughout Illinois, but it is uncommon, except at high quality sites. Natural habitats include mesic to dry black soil prairies, sand prairies, sandy oak savannas, and dry barrens, particularly in acidic soil. Recovery from occasional wildfires is very good.
Faunal Associations: This plant is pollinated primarily by queen bumblebees after they emerge from hibernation during the spring. Worker bumblebees appear somewhat later. The queen bees of a few other long-tongued bee species may visit this plant, including Synhalonia speciosa (Eucerine Miner Bee sp.) and Osmia bucephala bucephala (Mason Bee sp.). These insects usually seek nectar from the flowers, but sometimes collect pollen. The caterpillars of some butterflies, skippers, and moths feed on the foliage of this and other wild indigos. This includes the butterflies Colias cesonia (Southern Dogface) and Colias eurythema (Orange Sulfur), the skippers Achelerus lyciades (Hoary Edge) and Erynnis baptisiae (Wild Indigo Duskywing), and the moth Dasylophia anguina (Black-Spotted Prominent). Another insect visitor is Apion rostrum (Wild Indigo Weevil). The adults feed on the flowers and leaves, while the larvae feed on the seeds. Cream Wild Indigo is not normally bothered by mammalian herbivores because the foliage is poisonous. If livestock, such as cattle and horses, eat sufficient quantities of this plant, as well as other wild indigos that may be present, they can be seriously poisoned by it.
Photographic Location: The photograph was taken at Loda Cemetery Prairie in Iroquois County, Illinois.
Comments: This is one of the earliest plants to bloom in the prairie, and is quite showy and attractive. There is a less common variety of Cream Wild Indigo that has hairless leaves.