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Gardening 101: Lupine

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Gardening 101: Lupine

July 30, 2018

Lupine, Lupinus: “Fine Old Garden Flower”

Miss Rumphius was the lupine lady, as you probably remember from the picture book by Barbara Cooney. She lived in Maine, in a little house by the sea, and scattered flower seeds to create a colorful carpet along the coast. I cannot say how many times I have read the story aloud, first to one daughter, then to a second, and finally to the baby. What did we all love so much about Miss Rumphius? Was it the image of a little old lady flying through town on a bike, her long cape unfurled behind her like a flag of freedom? Was it the pretty illustrations of spiky, colorful flowers in bloom? I like to think it was her motto: “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

Lupines (or lupins are they are known in Europe) certainly live up to the standards of Miss Rumphius. With generous, palmate leaves that spread wide to gently cup a raindrop, Lupinus would be an ornamental plant even without flowers. But when it is in bloom, in shades that range from a deep, deep purple all the way through the color rainbow, the pea-shaped flowers clustered together on tall, sturdy spikes are breathtaking.

Miss Rumphius was not the first to appreciate its merits; the English horticulturalist George Russell devoted decades to creating colorful hybrids. Garden designer Gertrude Jekyll planted lupines in her kitchen garden. My father introduced lupines every spring to his garden in the Chicago suburbs. Emphasis on every spring—lupines are finicky friends and even among the perennial species of the plant, you can’t count on them to come back. However, wild varieties such as the purple sundial lupine (L. perennis), which nourishes butterfly larvae are likely to reappear year after year;  “wild” is a shorthand way of saying “found a spot that makes them happy.”

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer, except where noted.

Deep purple flowers and sturdy spikes are a mark of Russell hybrids, the floriferous lupines that 19th-century English horticulturalist George Russell devoted a lifetime to creating.
Above: Deep purple flowers and sturdy spikes are a mark of Russell hybrids, the floriferous lupines that 19th-century English horticulturalist George Russell devoted a lifetime to creating.

Many of today’s vividly colored lupine varieties (pink, orange, yellow, deep purple, and bi-colored) are the result of the hybridization efforts of Russell.

Decades of breeding lupines produced densely flowered, stocky Russell hybrids (Lupinus russellii hort), which won a gold medal from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1937 and promptly became a sensation on this side of the pond as well. “With the phenomenal interest created by the introduction of the new Russell lupines from England, this fine old garden flower has been catapulted into the limelight of the garden world,” wrote Edward F. Steffek in the New York Times in 1938.

Each pea-shaped flower on the spike deserves attention.
Above: Each pea-shaped flower on the spike deserves attention.

Although it has a temperamental reputation in the garden (perennial lupines are short-lived and generally can’t be counted on to bloom for more than three seasons), wildflower lupines will run rampant in climates that make them happy. The Texas bluebonnet, for instance, is actually a lupine. Texas legislators formally christened it “bluebonnet” instead when the wild blue lupine was elevated to the status of state flower in 1901.

Read more in Texas Treasure: Where to Find the Bluebonnets.

Photograph by Liz West via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Liz West via Flickr.

Garden design advice from John Steinbeck, courtesy of East of Eden: “Once a woman told me colored flowers would seem more bright if you added a few white flowers to give the colors definition. Every petal of blue lupin is edged with white, so that a field of lupins is more blue than you can imagine.”

White makes the purple look purpler.
Above: White makes the purple look purpler.

The sole food source for the larvae of the Karner Blue butterfly is wild lupine. “Native wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) is in decline in New England (and no longer exists at all in Maine), which is particularly concerning because it is the primary or only food source for the caterpillars of many endangered butterflies, including the Karner Blue,” writes Justine. Read more about efforts to propagate native species at Walk on the Wild Side: A New England Woodland Garden.

For creamy white lupines, consider Noble Maiden Russell Lupines; a packet of seeds is $3.50 from Eden Brothers.
Above: For creamy white lupines, consider Noble Maiden Russell Lupines; a packet of seeds is $3.50 from Eden Brothers.
Lupines are happy companions to alliums.
Above: Lupines are happy companions to alliums.
Lipstick pink is a color that resulted from cross-breeding. Grow your own Lupine Polyphyllus ‘Gallery Pink’ (preorder now for 2019) for $11.95 apiece from Bluestone Perennials.
Above: Lipstick pink is a color that resulted from cross-breeding. Grow your own Lupine Polyphyllus ‘Gallery Pink’ (preorder now for 2019) for $11.95 apiece from Bluestone Perennials.

Cheat Sheet

  • Help save the endangered endangered Karner Blue butterfly by planting sundial lupine (Lupinus perennis) and preventing cross-breeding with Russell hybrids (which are inedible to the butterflies).
  • Sundial Lupines (perennial in USDA zones 3 to 10, depending on the variety) are available seasonally from Annie’s Annuals.
  • So many lupines, so little time. Yellow bush lupine (Lupinus arboreus) is a short-lived perennial shrub that will grow as high as seven feet in a sheltered spot.

white lupins lupines by Britt Willoughby Dyer

Keep It Alive

  • Perennial lupines are hardy in USDA growing zones 3 to 10, depending on the variety.
  • For best results, plant lupines in full sun (although they can adapt to partial shade), in well-draining soil.
  • If you are growing Russell hybrids, know that they prefer cool temperatures and humid climates (in USDA zones 4 to 6, for instance).
  • If you buy seedlings, be careful not to damage the taproot when transplanting.
One bouquet a day from a farm in Sweden by doll maker Juliane Strittmatter, who picks flowers every day from May through October and posts them on Instagram: @onebouquetperday.
Above: One bouquet a day from a farm in Sweden by doll maker Juliane Strittmatter, who picks flowers every day from May through October and posts them on Instagram: @onebouquetperday.

For more growing tips, see Lupines: A Field Guide to Planting Care & Design in our curated guides to Perennials 101 and Annuals 101. See more lupines in a landscape:

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