Indigo grows best between zones 3-10. It grows as shrubs or herbs to between 3-4 ft tall with spreading branches of 3-4 ft, and should therefore be plantes 18-30 inches apart. The leaves of the plant, which yield the blue indigo dye, are slightly hairy and separated into leaflets usually opposite of each other (1). The plant needs full sun to partial shade with medium to dry soil. Indigo is slow to grow, but once established, is a tough plant that is drought tolerant and requires little maintenance. Indigo needs regular well watering, as it prefers evenly moist soil. Nitrogen fertilizer should be used during long periods of rainfall to counter natural leaching. In the summer, indigo should be pruned by pinching off dead flowers and yellowing leaves (2). Indigo is a great windowsill plant, however it does not do as well outdoors in the summer. The plant grows best when it’s started in a greenhouse. Blue wild indigo belongs to the plant family Fabaceae, also known as the pea family. Plants in this plant family feed a number caterpillars. Additionally, blue false indigo is a plant native to Illinois, which is environmentally beneficial because it helps restore local habitats by conserving water and attracting native species. It also fixes nitogren in the soil, which makes it a great companion plant for native grasses. However, the plant is considered toxic and contains alkaloids that make the plant unpalatable for grazing animals (3).
Culinary and Medicinal Uses
Blue false indigo is considered to have low levels of toxicity and is considered likely to contributing to the development of severe diarrhea and anorexia (3). However it has been used as an antiseptic, antiseptic, anticatarrhal, febrifuge,and stimulant purgative. Blue false indigo is thought of to stimulate the immune system to purge any infections. Some ailments it is used for include ear, nose, and throat infections. Native Americans used the root of indigo for purging purposes as well and was most commonly ingested as a cold tea to stop vomiting. Sometimes people would chew on the root to soothe toothaches (6). A formulation of the stem has been used externally as a wash to treat smallpox and other similar skin ailments. Blue false indigo should only be used under the supervision of a trained professional. Side effects of ingesting blue indigo may include vomiting, diarrhea and gastrointestinal spasms (4).
Significance to Cultural Communities
Blue false indigo is native to India, however some species are native to southern Africa and tropical regions in America. The plant is used in witchcraft practicing cultures, who associate it with femininity and Venus. Therefore, indigo is regarded as protective and is used around the home and it’s also used in spells and amulets for protective purposes. People who engage in these practices regard indigo as especially protective for household pets (4). Indigo is bundled and hung off the tack of a working animal. Some people that practice witchcraft keep a leaf in their pockets for protection outside of the home (6). Indigo is particularly important to Indonesian and Javanese cultures because it is used as a dye for traditional batik, which is a cloth that represents Javanese conceptualizations of the universe. Traditional colors of the batik represent Hindu gods, with Indigo representing Brahma. These colors also serve as an indicator of status in society, as only certain classes of people could wear certain designs on their batik (7). Some Masaai people in Sekenani camp in Kenya use the bark of the indigo in making their toothbrushes (5). Lastly, the Cherokee Native Americans would use the blue indigo dye for their clothes - a practice which was later passed down to the early pioneer settlers. The Osage Native people would make washes for the eyes from the indigo plant while the Cherokee would brew it as a tea to prevent vomiting. The children would use the dried pods of the indigo plant as rattlers, with the loose seeds shaking inside of the pod (3).
1. “Indigo.” Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. http://www.kew.org/plant-cultures/plants/indigo_plant_profile.html
2. “Growing Guide Baptisia (Wild Indigo).” White Flower Farm. http://www.whiteflowerfarm.com/growing-baptisia.html
3. Broyles, Patrick J. “Plant Guide: Blue Wild Indigo.” USDA NRCS, January 14, 2004. http://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_baau.pdf
4. “Blue False Indigo.” Witchipedia. http://www.witchipedia.com/herb:false-indigo
5. Bussmann, Rainer W., Gilbreath, Genevieve G., Solio, John, Lutura, Manjam, Lutuluo, Rumpac, Kunguru, Kimaren, Wood, Nick, & Mathenge, Simon G. “Plant use of the Maasai of Sekenani Valley, Maasai Mara, Kenya.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, May 5, 2006, 2-22. Published online 2006 May 5. doi: 10.1186/1746-4269-2-22
6. Jordi, Rebecca. “Blue False Indigo: Baptisia australis.” Horticulture: University of Florida Nassau County Extension. http://nassau.ifas.ufl.edu/horticulture/demogarden/plants/bluefalseindigo.html
7. “Indonesian Batik.” UNESCO, 2009. http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?RL=00170