Lupine

I didn’t go to the farmer’s market intending to buy Lupine, but that is what happened a couple of years ago. It just looked so pretty and the leaves are so interesting, I had to buy a couple. That was 2 summers ago, and they are doing well. Other than having eye-catching flowers, I did not know anything about them at the time. Since then, I’ve learned there is quite an interesting history behind the Lupine.

Lupine grow as wildflowers over much of western North America. In fact, from Alaska to Chile, there are almost 200 species of Lupine. Back in the 1820’s these wildflowers (Lupinus Polyphyllus) were introduced to Britain, but it wasn’t until around 1911 that they caught the eye of a horticulturist named George Russell. He was impressed with Lupine, but thought he could make it better. The wild varieties were mostly blue, and had gaps along the flower spike. He dreamed of creating one with brighter colors, and larger, denser flowers. For the next 25 years or so, that is what he did, weeding out all those that did not fit his vision.

For all those years, Russell kept his Lupines to himself, never sharing anything that could be used to propagate more flowers. Finally a nursery owner named James Baker convinced Russell to share. His nursery would propagate the plants and distribute them to the public. Together they perfected what are now known as Russell Hybrids. Almost all garden Lupine hybrids today are hybrids of Russell Hybrids.

Lupines belong to the family Fabaceae and the genus Lupinus, which contains more than 200 species. They are mostly herbaceous perennials, with a few annuals and shrubs. Lupines have the interesting ability to take nitrogen from the atmosphere, and release it into the soil. This helps them tolerate poor soil, and also helps improve the soil for nearby plants. Leaves are divided into many leaflets, sometimes as many as 28. The flower spikes make impressive cut flowers alone or in arrangements. Lupines attract bees, but should not be eaten by humans. The leaves, seeds and fruits of garden hybrids are poisonous.

Lupine flowers appear on tall spikes in late spring to early summer. Some say that cutting the flower stalks back to the ground after blooming will lead to another bloom in September. I have never tried that, but I definitely want to next year. Flowers come in many colors besides blue; red, white, pink, lilac, apricot, yellow and even bi-color. They grow about 2-4 feet tall. Lupines readily self-seed, and can cover large areas of open ground fairly quickly. In some areas, they can be considered invasive.

Plant Lupines in zones 4-9 in full sun, maybe with a little afternoon shade. Too much sun may make the flowers wilt. The soil should be moist, but well drained, and can be sandy. They will not tolerate clay, nor will they grow when there is lime in the soil. Make sure you place them correctly the first time because Lupines dislike being moved. They have a deep tap root and are difficult to transplant successfully.

Once the flowers are spent, seed pods appear. If left alone, they will dry and burst open, flinging seeds all over the area. Next year, you will find little Lupine plants 10 or 20 feet from your original plant. If you want to collect the seeds, pick the pods when they start to rattle, and put them inside a container until they burst open. Plant the seeds immediately or let them dry out. The seeds are quite hard, so if they are dry, soak them in water overnight or nick them with a knife before planting. Seeds can be sown anytime.  If you want the exact same plant, you’ll have to take cuttings in late summer, or divide the plant in early fall. Plants grown from seed may look similar to the mother plant, but they will never be exactly the same.

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One Response to “Lupine”

  1. Kem Says:

    I’ve never grown lupines. Maybe I will try them some time. And I owe you an email!

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