Native Plant Profile: Lupine

The tall colorful spires of lupine flowers are beautiful in the wild and the garden.

Probably the most distinctive genera of the pea family in the Pacific Northwest, lupines serve multiple ecological functions: they offer protein-rich food for a variety of animals and as a legume, lupines are nitrogen fixers, improving the health of the soil. There are over 200 species of lupine found primarily in North and South America and at a variety of elevations. Lupines are found in mountains, meadows, forests, and sage steppe habitats which explains the diversity of sizes in species as they adapted to their differing landscapes.  

Lupines are one of the first native plants to forests that have been destroyed through the destruction of clearcutting.
Lupines are one of the first native plants to return to clear-cut lands.

Why Wolf Flower?

Historical references refer to lupine as “wolf flower.” The plant’s name Lupinus is based on the Latin lupus which means “wolf-like” and there are several possible reasons offered for the wolf reference. One claims that the plant was often noticed growing in colonies with no other plants nearby, thus “wolfing” or robbing the soil of its nutrients.  Another reason suggests that the plant’s toxic seeds can kill livestock just like the wolf does. The more likely possibility is the connection to the Greek word lopos which means ‘husk’ and refers to the dry outer covering of the seed pod. 

Lupine's hairy seed pods.
Lupine’s hairy seed pods.

The Pea Flower Structure

The differing sizes of species vary from small to shrub-sized but they all present the classic 5 petaled pea flower: the larger two upper petals are called the banner, the two side petals are called wings and the lower petal is called the keel. The stamens and style are hidden in the keel and when their preferred pollinators, bumblebees, land on the keel, the stamen and style spring up, brushing the bee’s abdomen with pollen. Lupine flowers are usually various hues of blue and white and a few species are bi-colored. The Blue Mountains endemic species, Sabin’s lupine (L. sabianus) flowers are bright yellow.

Lupine flowers follow the classic pea floral structure.
Lupine flowers follow the classic pea floral structure. Photo: Evergreens & Dandelion @ Unsplash

The Lonely Lupine of Mount St. Helens

After Mount St. Helen’s erupted on May 18, 1980, research ecologists tracked the slow return of flora and fauna to the ash-laden blast zone that was once alpine forest, now named the Pumice Plain.  A lone Prairie Lupine was one of the first plants to appear on the barren landscape that offered few nutrients to support plant life. Ecologists determined that the lupine’s ability to fix nitrogen from the air allowed the plant to survive the harsh conditions and create its own microhabitat.  The plant acted as a snare for windblown organic debris and insects which slowly contributed to the development of organic matter in the soil around this lone plant.  Over several years, that lonely lupine turned into a colony of lupine plants that nurtured an environment for expanding the diversity of plants and animals.

Mount St. Helens lupine field 40 years after the volcano exploded. (Image: Seattle Times)
Mount St. Helens lupine field 40 years after the volcano exploded. (Photo: Seattle Times)

Is it Edible?  

Many lupine species contain toxic alkaloids and are considered poisonous for human and livestock consumption. Lupine does have a history as an edible seed once the bitter alkaloids were removed by soaking in running water. The seeds are being re-introduced as a native food for several South American indigenous groups. Lupini is a pickled snack food made with lupin seeds and is served in the Mediterranean and South American countries that were colonized by Europeans.  Several PNW indigenous groups have used lupine leaves as an edible and in ceremonies. The roots were used to make cordage. One group used the lupine’s flowering as a seasonal indicator; the blooms indicated the groundhogs were fat enough to eat.

Lupines palmated leaves
Lupine’s palmated leaves

In the Garden

Horticulturists have created lupine hybrids for use as ornamental garden plants. They thrive in Zones 4-9, preferring conditions like wet cool winters, dry summers, and full sun. Far more pampered than their wild cousins, they need consistent moist conditions to stay pretty. Their tall spikes of flowers come in a variety of bright colors that bloom for a short time in late spring through early summer. They will naturalize if given the space.

If choosing to use native species, be sure to select one that is specific to your region. Some species can become invasive when grown outside of their native habitat.

Lupine cultivars are available in a variety of colors.  Photo: Photo by Michaela Murphy on Unsplash
Lupine cultivars are available in a variety of colors. Photo: Photo by Michaela Murphy on Unsplash

RESOURCES: Wikipedia; Western Garden book; Botanica; Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast; Sagebrush Country: A Wildflower Sanctuary; Mountain Plants of the Pacific Northwest

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