I think it is safe to say that most Northwest gardeners (or even non-gardeners) a familiar with lupines — those plants we see along the freeway in late May and early June with their spikes of blue flowers.
They are native across North America and are one of the first plants to recolonize a forest after a fire, or worse yet, a volcanic eruption like Mount St.Helens. Being part of the pea family, they are capable of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere and thereby producing their own fertilizer. They thrive in well-draining soil and generally prefer it “lean and mean.”
While you can find the native version of lupines in wildflower seed mixes, they can be relatively unrefined. That all changed years ago when a man by the name of George Russell from York, England, took it upon himself to start a selection process to improve the flowering quality and color range. Twenty years later, at age 79, he presented his accomplishments at the famous Chelsea Flower Show in England, but strangely enough, wouldn’t let anyone else plant his new seed and grow them. Finally, before he died at 96 years young, he was persuaded by another nurseryman to allow them to be propagated. Unfortunately, that nursery eventually went out of business and the Russell Strain of lupines started to slip away until an aspiring young horticulturist named Sarah Conibear managed to obtain some seeds and start the selection process back up. Her passion and dedication led to some incredible new colors that are supported on stout, erect stems from plants that are robust and reliably perennial.
Here are a few of the varieties you might find this time of year at the local garden center.
“Manhattan Lights”: If you are a UW Huskies fan, this is a must-have for your garden! The flowers spikes are a perfect purple and gold combination that just shouts “Go Dawgs!”
“Desert Sun”: Creamy white buds open to pure yellow flowers on 3-f00t-tall stems.
“Masterpiece”: A fabulous magenta-and-purple combination.
”Red Rum”: Pink buds open to an enticing raspberry red with flecks of white
Westcountry nurseries in England continue to develop new color options, like their scrumptious orange and salmon varieties, “Towering Inferno” and “Salmon Star” and a soft whitish one named “Cashmere Cream.” Currently you will not be able to find all of these flavors in the states, but several wholesale nurseries are now in production and availability is improving significantly. Two familiar brands, Proven Winners and Monrovia Nurseries, are both offering several color choices.
As for cultural tips, plant lupines in full sun with well-draining soil. Soggy conditions can lead to crown rot and your plants will likely not survive our winters. Aphids can sometimes be a problem, so watch for them (they seem to appear en masse overnight) and spray with either a natural product like Insecticidal Soap or Neem Oil or a systemic that will last through the entire bloom cycle. Also, I have experienced occasional problems with mildew, which can be exacerbated if the plants are too crowded (poor air circulation), planted in too much shade or overfed. Generally, you will get good results if you give them some tough love — remember, they thrive on neglect.
Lupines will attract hummingbirds and butterflies along with other pollinators, are drought-tolerant, and make fabulous cut flowers. Plant them in your sunny mixed border and enjoy them for years. Overall, I think they are worthy addition to all Northwest gardens and landscapes. Stay safe and keep on gardening!
Steve Smith represents Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, and can be reached at email@example.com.
Sunnyside Nursery’s next free online class will be “Thrillers, Fillers & Spillers” at 10 a.m. May 21, paired with a Free Container Planting Day in the nursery that same day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, go to www.sunnysidenursery.net/classes.