Plant Profile – Lupine

Purple Lupines

Native to western North America, the wild lupine, Lupinus polyphyllus, lights up sandy verges and meadows.   Lupines were brought back to England in the 1820s by explorer David Douglas and introduced into  English perennial gardens.  It wasn’t until the early 20th century that George Russell started hybridizing L. polyphyllus with L. arborus and possibly L. nootkatensis, and selected those with interesting colors and more dense flower stalks.  However, “The blue colouring is a recessive allele, and so although Russell might have worked hard to suppress it, lupins left unchecked over several generations will eventually revert to the old blues.” [WikipediaNeglected for half a century, lupine breeding was picked up by Brian and Maurice Woodfield and the stock was re-invigorated.

Lupinus 'Gladiator'
Lupinus ‘Gladiator’ – Copyright © Photograph Kenneth Ingebretsen

Hybridization continued by the Woodfields has introduced remarkable multi-colored flowers, sturdy stems and shorter foliage, to reduce the need for staking, as well as mildew resistance.  If you save your own seed, chip the seed and germinate it on sifted compost with vermiculite.  Select for healthy plants and good color; make sure to pull out any plants that are sub-standard.

As a member of the pea family, lupines will fix nitrogen in the soil.  They are not heavy feeders and will do fine in neglected areas of your garden, as long as there is good drainage with grit or gravel added.

Interestingly, lupines contain the whole complement of essential amino acids and could become the next ‘health food’ … BUT, they all contain various levels of alkaloids and can be toxic if not prepared properly.  The sweet lupines include the yellow Lupinus luteus, and the “Andean Lupin L. mutabilis, the Mediterranean Lupinus albus (white lupin), Lupinus angustifolius (blue lupin) and Lupinus hirsutus [which] are only edible after soaking the seeds for some days in salted water” [quote source: Wikipedia].  The seeds can then be pickled, or dried and ground into flour.  Additionally, they can be used as fodder for livestock and poultry, although I’m not sure that the work involved to make lupine less toxic is worth the effort for my chickens.

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