There is a field in town, not far from where I work, which is a right of way beneath the high tension power lines which carry electricity to the Outer Cape. Because of that, the field may not be used for much of anything, but has been planted as a wildflower meadow. In previous years, I’ve noticed daisies, coreopsis and assorted other things growing here throughout the summer as I drove past. And I’ve also noticed the lupines. Their season is a brief one, though, and since this can be a busy time of year, usually I notice too late that they have been blooming.
This week, I happened to drive by at just the right moment to discover the peak of their bloom.
Lupines – or lupins – get their name from the Latin word for wolf. When these plants were first discovered, it was in fairly sandy or otherwise poor soil. For a while, people mistakenly believed that these plants leached nutrients out of the soil, leaving only sand and gravel behind. Since wolves are often seen as villains that only take and do not give, the flowers were given their name. Sarah Palin must hate these flowers.
Representing as they do another branch of the pea family tree, lupines actually fix nitrogen into the soil and so are actually improving it. I think it’s just fascinating how well organized Nature is, with there being a plant for every condition, and each with its job to do there.
Last year, I managed to harvest some local lupine seedpods in hopes of welcoming some to the garden. I lost track of most of them in the transitions of last summer, because as the seedpods dry, they become brittle and shatter. In the Wild, this is a perfect means for getting one’s seed as far-flung as possible.
On the floor on the passenger side of my car, however, this is less than optimal, and I was only able to recover a few of those seeds as autumn turned to winter. Eventually, the six (I was pretty sure they were lupin seeds, anyway one of them was) were potted up. Of those, just one has germinated, but it’s doing pretty well, considering lupine seedlings are not always terribly fond of potted culture.
You shouldn’t take that as a sign that lupines are difficult to grow, however. Lupine seeds can be nutritious, filled with oil and proteins, but they also contain alkaloids. It seems these are fairly easily removed with boiling, but when ingested raw by grazing livestock, lupines can kill sheep and cause paralysis and deformity in newborn cattle, the former being the other reason for the wolf association.
However, these alkaloid-laden seeds are also therefore unattractive to foraging animals and birds, who might still latch onto their seedpods and carry them elsewhere before discovering the seeds to be distasteful. Thus, the seeds have a stronger chance of surviving and growing, just from a simply scattering on the ground. Sneaky, eh? Like the wolf, you say.
The new leaves of lupines are important larval food for a large variety of lepidoptera who’s ingestion of alkaloid producing plants helps make them poisonous or at least yucky-tasting to their potential predators.
A few random facts: Properly prepared, lupines have, over the years, been used to supplement diets of humans and livestock, to freshen human complexions, diminish scars, banish intestinal worms and when burned, the lupine smoke is said to kill gnats. They’ve been cultivated for over 4,000 years, when they were first widely-grown in Egypt after the discovery their propensity to thrive in poor, sandy soils. Prairie lupines were among the first plants to sprout and and begin fixing nitrogen in the pyroclastic deposits left in the wake of the Mount Saint Helen’s eruption and are often one of those first, restorative plants to thrive in places devastated by wildfires. The bluebonnet version is Texas’ official state flower (and I am told it is possibly the best thing about the state, at that).
The Seed Which Lived came from the wild colony of lupines which grow on the slope of Fort Hill in Eastham, a promontory overlooking Nauset Marsh and its barrier beaches and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. I was especially excited for the reminder that these were in bloom, since I do enjoy getting up there at the right time. There’s something magical about the way these lupines grow here so seemingly unexpected, the way their colors glow in the mist, how they thrive here in the hot sun (when it’s out) on the edge of the continent, with the ocean waves crashing tinily in the distance.
Lupines are biennials. This means they propagate by scattering their seed, which grows as a plant for a year before blooming in the second, and often final, year of their lives. When the flowers fade, the seeds scatter to new, mostly nearby locations, and the cycle starts all over again. In places where winters are mild, they sometimes perennialize, but generally, they still reproduce via seed.
This means the show is always different, with different colors blooming on different parts of the hillside, sometimes creating great drifts of color, other years only spots of color here and there. Some years there are many, while other years the show is smaller. I sort of wish that I had thought to take a photo of them from the same perspective every year since I discovered them, to have a record of the way they migrate about.
Ah, well, one more item for that list of Things To Do After Perfecting Time Travel Technology.
Lupines also make me think each year of the story of Miss Rumphius. I hope you are all familiar with this wonderful children’s book by Barbara Cooney, which really is a book each one of us should read…and re-read, as often as is necessary to remind us of its lesson.
I’ll recap briefly, for those not in The Know( but you should still seek out a copy from your library, it’s just lovely and I’m sure to not do it justice.): When Miss Rumphius is a young girl, she decides that she is going to follow her grandfather’s example and travel to visit exotic places around the world, before returning to settle in a small town by the sea. Her grandfather asks her to do one additional thing: to do something to make the world a more beautiful place. For most of her life, she’s a little stumped about how to fulfill this, until she stumbles across the easy-to-grow lupine as her media for satisfying the promise and becomes The Lupine Lady, a sort of floral answer to Johnny Appleseed.
I just love this story for so many terribly obvious reasons. I haven’t seen much of the world’s exotic locales, but I have settled by the sea, where I’ve met these fabulous lupines, maybe even left here by Alice Rumphius, or someone she inspired. Imagine what the world could look like if a few more of us starting scattering seeds of our favorite plants around, making seed bombs to get into vacant lots or unreachable medians, or using one of our many other (collectively-speaking) diverse and considerable talents to make a difference. Don’t be like Sarah Palin.
What have you done to make the world a more beautiful place?