Sometimes I think of leadplant (Amorpha canescens) as the ugly duckling of xeric shrubs. It’s just not appreciated. Consider this quote from the Missouri Botanic Gardens (MBG) webpage:
A somewhat ordinary looking, small shrub with an attractive bloom but otherwise with no particularly outstanding landscape features. Good plant for naturalizing in a native or wildflower garden, prairie or meadow.
I suppose they can be forgiven. After all, Missouri is a lot more hospitable to most plants than Colorado is. Shrubs want to grow in Missouri—it’s like being in a humid hothouse! Missouri gardeners have plenty of options and can afford to be a bit snobby about an “ordinary looking, small shrub.”
In my opinion, leadplant isn’t all that ordinary. Growing one to eight feet tall (usually closer to three feet), and spreading three or four feet wide, its slightly arching stems are lined with gray fern-like foliage. A close look reveals a layer of fine white hairs, part of its adaptation to drought. A relatively open habit (especially if grown on the dry side) means that you get a good view of the flowers, and “attractive bloom” doesn’t do them justice.
First of all, they’re a bright plum purple (and I love purple flowers). Then, their stamen and anthers are bright orange, and if there’s anything I like more than purple flowers, it’s purple and orange flowers. The flowers form long, branched spikes at the ends of the branches, starring in mid- to late-summer when little else is in bloom. The flowers are followed by interesting long pods—not a surprise when you realize that leadplant is a member of the pea family. These can persist into fall after the leaves drop, providing interest even while the plant is dormant.
Another major feature is how easy it is to grow. A native of the high plains, leadplant prefers dry, sandy soil, but it also tolerates unamended clay. How many prissy ornamentals can make that claim? Once established, it gets by with minimal water. (A bit more water will result in a lusher plant, as long as the soil is very well drained.) Give it full sun.
Unfortunately, leadplant is adored by deer. I suspect rabbits would agree. At least it’s not susceptible to insect pests or diseases. The MBG website mentions some fungal issues, but I doubt they would occur in our much dryer climate. It’s highly attractive to bees and other pollinators. And as a legume, it fixes nitrogen in the soil so you don’t have to fertilize. (The name “leadplant” comes from the erroneous idea that its presence indicates high concentrations of lead in the soil.)
The biggest concern when growing leadplant is where to put it. Sometimes described as “ungainly,” it’s not a solo performer. Rather, consider where it grows naturally and aim in the same direction. It’s perfectly at home in a thickly-planted prairie garden, tucked in with other native wildflowers and grasses. Pair it with Mexican Hat (Ratibida) and Blanketflower (Gaillardia) for an outstanding color combination. Or choose similarly hued Gayfeather (Liatris), Catmint (Nepeta), or Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)—and perhaps some California Fuchsia (Epilobium sp.) in the foreground for contrast.
Kansas named leadplant the 2012 Wildflower of the Year. With accolades like that, who cares what the MBG thinks? 😉