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Baptisia lanceolata, known commonly as gopherweed, is a small, long-lived, woody plant in the pea family (Fabaceae). It is one of about 30 species in the genus Baptisia. The Baptisia species are also known as wild indigos. Although its name suggests it is a “weed,” gopherweed is a plant native to the southeastern United States.
Gopherweed inhabits dry longleaf pine woodlands, oak scrub and sandhills. It likes sunny areas, and also occurs in open or disturbed areas, for example, along roadways. While common along the gulf coast of Alabama, Georgia and the Florida panhandle, gopherweed is rare and patchily distributed in South Carolina and central Florida.
Gopherweed grows as a round bush reaching about 2-3 ft (0.6-1 m) high. Its leaves have a “lance” shape, that is, a narrow oval far longer than wide. Their shape distinguishes Baptisia lanceolata from other members of the Baptista genus. Thus gopherweed is also sometimes called lance-leaf indigo. Its leaves grow in groups of three leaflets, sometimes covered with light, fuzzy hair.
To live in dry habitats, gopherweed has an extensive and deep root system. As do many species of legume, gopherweed forms nodules along its roots to house nitrogen-fixing bacteria. This plant plays an important role in its ecosystem by returning fixed nitrogen to the soil. Fixed nitrogen is a limited nutrient in the soils where it lives, so this benefits the whole plant community.
Gopherweed blooms between March and May. It produces clusters of 2-4 small yellow flowers per stem. The flowers have a typical “pea family” shape. Pollination biologists note that the flowers attract a large number of native bee species. For this reason, the Xerces society for insect conservation considers gopherweed a valuable species for beneficial insects.
Like most legumes, gopherweed seeds develop in pods, which mature in July and August. The pods are almost spherical and have a large point on the end. Although this plant does not have many serious pests, Indigo weevils (Apion rostrum) and some moths (for example the three-lined grapholita moth, Grapholita tristrigana) lay their eggs in the developing gopherweed pod. The larvae hatch and as they grow they eat the gopherweed seeds. Indigo weevils can significantly reduce the number of seeds a gopherweed plant produces.
When ripe, healthy pods burst open, dispersing the seeds. The seeds are eaten by foraging small mammals (mostly rodents) and birds, which help with further seed dispersal. Harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex spp.) also disperse the seeds by carrying them to their nests.
As do other species of Baptisia, gopherweed produces toxic chemicals called quinolizidines that discourage herbivores. Despite this, gopherweed is still an important host plant to some insect larvae. Notable examples are the caterpillars of six butterfly species: the orange sulfur (Colias eurytheme), the common sulfur (Colias philodice), the frosted elfin (Callophrys irus), the eastern tailed blue (Cupido comyntas), the hoary edge (Achalarus lyciades), and the wild indigo duskywing (Erynnis baptisiae).