Elysian Fields: Growing Lupine From Seed
Nov 29, 2018
Poet and naturalist Henry David Thoreau was an enormous fan of lupines. He marveled at the way they seemed to radiate "stored" sunlight when viewed by the light of the moon. "Its leaf was made to be covered with dew drops," he wrote. Lupine leaves' ultra-fine velvety texture holds moisture droplets as if they were tiny diamonds on their finger-like segments. Thoreau likened meadows of wild lupines—with their airy, translucent blue color—to Elysian fields, reflecting the color of the heavens.
If he were to witness the various lupine colors cultivated today, he'd wonder if he'd mistakenly sauteed the wrong woodland mushrooms. Where the blue wild lupines are indeed sublime, the multi-hued hybridizations and natural variants found far from Walden Pond take heaven to a whole new level.
Native Range & History
Lupine, which is pronounced loo-pin, is the genus name for about 200 native and hybridized species of this legume, and a member of the greater pea (Fabaceae) family. Nearly every part of North America has its own indigenous lupines and a few originate in Asia, the eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt.
Livestock managers here and overseas sometimes plant varieties to supplement their pasture fodder, but given that lupines range in toxicity, it's fallen out of favor among ranchers who prefer their sheep and cattle to feed people, not turkey vultures.
While you wouldn't want to eat any part of lupines without careful processing, these plants—as do all nitrogen-fixing legumes—do nourish their plant neighbors. Lupines also make a good green fertilizer. Farmers sow, grow, and then plow them under to enrich their topsoil, and if your landscape's fertility is somewhat lacking, your lupines will thrive.
The plant was once thought to deplete or wolf the mineral content of the soil; hence the genus name derived from the Latin lupus (wolf). Actually the plant and all the family enhances soil fertility by fixing atmospheric nitrogen into a useful form. (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center)
Back to their toxicity: Whenever we read about Pliny the Elder's take on an herb, we tend to wince. According to A Modern Herbal, he wrote, "if taken commonly at meals, it will contribute a fresh colour and a cheerful countenance." Sure, Mr. Pliny. And funeral directors can pull that off, too.
All jokes aside, lupine seeds (also called lupine beans) have been a staple around the world for millennia. If they're soaked, boiled, or brined, the alkalinity that contributes to their dangerous nature dissipates but some species are more dangerous than others. White lupine (Lupinus albus) is the most commonly consumed species in the old world, while New World cultures have Andean or pearl lupine (L. mutabilis).
Lupines in the Garden
Do you have a sandy, sunny spot in your garden that you haven't managed to improve with compost, hauled-in topsoil, blood, sweat, and tears? Don't mess with it! Save it for your lupines. Whether they're annual or perennial, all lupines do best with coarse, well-draining substrate. They prefer medium to poor soils, and while they make good xeriscaping plants once they're established, they'll do fine (at least Russell varieties do) if they're watered on the same schedule as your more persnickety bedding plants.
Given the wide range in plant heights, you can select them for backgrounds, borders, rock gardens, and mass plantings. We love to plant them with columbines, which tend to have overlapping native environments. Try them with in large patches with ox-eye daisies, or find out why one of the most popular pairings is with poppies.
We currently offer these varieties and mixes, chosen for their beauty, color, resilience, and ease of cultivation:
Wild blue lupine (Lupinus perennis)
These perennial true-blue lupines, which are indigenous to the eastern half of the United States, grow 12" to 36" tall; they have towering flower spikes, and on rare occasion, the blooms might be pale rose or cream colored. The blooms tend to be a little less dense on wild lupines, but they're no less spectacular than their refined cousins.
The wild blue lupine is essential to the endangered Karner blue butterfly, whose caterpillars eat only lupine leaves and the adults favor the plant's nectar.
Texas bluebonnet lupines (Lupinus texensis)
Did you think the yellow rose was Texas' state flower? Think again! These biennial lupines grow 8" to 12" tall, with blue or indigo, often white-tipped flowers. The stalks are more compact than most cultivated lupines, but that just makes them particularly adorable.
Russell lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus)
Perhaps the most popular garden cultivar, perennial Russell lupines grow 12" to 36" tall (sometimes reaching a soaring five feet) with densely-packed flowers on their towering spikes. Bloom colors include shades of pink, blue, red and yellow. These hybrids were developed by English botanist George Russell in the early 1900s.
Arroyo lupine (Lupinus succulentus)
Native to California, western Arizona, and Baja, these annual lupines have stubbier, more rounded leaf segments. Their relatively small clusters of indigo flowers might be white-tipped or even yellow toward the top. Arroyo lupines grow 24" to 48" tall.
Yellow lupine (Lupinus densiflorus aureus)
Native to southern Europe and western Asia, L. densiflorus aureus is an annual that, when left to re-seed, reproduces true-to-form. These look wonderful mixed in with wild blue or arroyo lupines, and they grow 24" to 36" tall.
General Lupine Characteristics
Lupine blooms resemble those of their pea cousins and completely surround the tall spikes (racemes) that grow from and far above the center of the plant's foliage. Lupines grow upright, with layered foliage that grows on a horizontal plane. The typical lupine leaf pattern is compound palmate with 5 to 9 leaflets forming a circular pattern around the tip of the stem. They're deeply lobed, with each leaflet typically coming to a point (some varieties are more rounded). Leaves can be bright green to dusty sage; some varieties appear to be tinged with frost.
In most areas, lupines bloom from late June through mid-August. Lupines thrive in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 9 but they don't love extremely hot conditions. If you live at altitude or cooler maritime climates, this is an excellent ornamental for you.
- Sunlight Preferences: Lupine flowers best in full sun, but it can tolerate partial shade in hotter regions.
- Moisture Requirements: Keep the seedbeds moist until the lupine seedlings are well-established, but after this don't overwater your plants. Weekly deep watering is usually sufficient.
- Soil Preferences: Be sure to loosen the soil about 12" to 18" deep to allow for optimal taproot growth. Lupine doesn't tolerate clay soil and prefers slightly alkaline, sandy soil. It actually thrives in medium-to-poor fertility; don't coddle these plants.
- Plant Height: 6" to 48"
- Plant Width: 6" to 18"
Other than the occasional visit by aphids, lupines are hardy plants. Mulching too close to the plant's base can cause crown rot, though, so take care to give them some space. Lupines resist being devoured by deer and rabbits, and they attract a wide variety of pollinators.
Aside from pinching off spent flowers to prolong the bloom, there's not much to do with lupines except to admire them. Note that most commercially-available lupines are hybrids, and if you let them reseed, you won't get true-to-type flowers the following years. We recommend deadheading hybrid lupine flower spikes as they wither, replenishing their beds with a new round of seeds. Perennial lupines will come back year after year with the same genetic characteristics.
Successfully Growing Lupine from Seed
In their natural environment, native lupines require soil disturbance or fire to germinate and thrive; this is why the seeds are tough as stones. Natural land clearing provides the sunlight required for germination and early growth, and the plants are designed to thrive in fire-sterilized topsoil.
Lupine seeds must be prepped for germination by either soaking them in warm water for 24 hours, scarifying them with the rough side of an Emory board, or subjecting them to one week of cold stratification. We recommend scarification followed by cold stratification; for the latter, fold the seeds into a damp paper towel, enclose in a sealed baggie, and refrigerate for seven days. For more information on seed treatment, check out our article, "The Dirt on Successful Seed Germination."
- When to Plant Outdoors: Plant your lupine seeds after all danger of frost has passed, or in the fall. If you opt for the latter, skip the artificial cold stratification; winter cold and the frost cycle will do it for you.
- When to Plant Indoors: 6 to 8 weeks prior to last spring frost.
- Seed Depth: 1/8"; firmly press your lupine seeds into the soil surface.
- Seed Spacing: Sow, thin, or transplant lupine seeds 12" to 18" apart for the dwarf to standard varieties, but give them up to 36" if they're advertised as larger lupines.
- Days to Germination: 7 to 21 days at 65°F.
We strongly recommend direct-sowing your lupine seeds. If you're a rebel and want to start growing lupine from seed indoors, be sure to use tall (at least 4") biodegradable pots so that you don't disturb the deep taproot upon transplanting. Make extra starts, because the attrition rate's pretty high with transplanted lupines.
Contact Seed Needs
Lupine seeds are designed for durability and remain viable in storage for quite some time, but you still want to be reasonably certain the seeds you purchase haven't been sitting in some dusty warehouse since Thoreau's woodland sabbatical. They're seeds, not Twinkies, and we work with the highest quality suppliers and order only what we can expect to sell in a single season. We keep our stock in climate-controlled storage, so when you purchase your lupine seeds from us, you can leave them in your own potting shed as long as you feel like it.
Though we have a feeling you'll want to sow them as soon as you can; lupines are one of our favorite plants, especially since so many gardeners erroneously think they're so tough to grow. It makes those of us in the know look good and feel deservedly smug to maintain a thriving bed of these graceful plants.Do you know what else makes us look good? Our positive reviews, which we can only earn through excellent products and customer service. Please contact us if you have any questions, either before you order with us or later if you need us to help you troubleshoot a gardening issue. We look forward to hearing from you and earning your business!