An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

June 14, 2014

Lessons Learned from Lupines

     I first fell in love with lupines on a trip to Maine, where the plants seemed to be growing without effort. I think what attracts me is their stature, and the upright drama they add to the garden. For the same reasons I am similarly attracted to other tall flowers, such as Digitalis, hollyhocks, and Verbasum. But for me there is something else about lupines that I can't quite put my finger on, perhaps it has something to do with symmetry and uniformity. When I first began gardening I couldn't find any lupines for sale in local nurseries, and more than one nursery person told me this perennial wouldn't grow here, that it was just too hot. A little research confirmed my disappointment, and I begrudgingly resolved to admire them from afar. Years later, I saw them again, only this time coming up through cracks in the pavement during a trip to Grand Lake, Colorado, and I just haven't been able to let go.

     In the fall of 2012, some co-workers and I attended a lecture by Lisa Ziegler, a nearby wholesale cut flower grower. The gist of her talk was how she sows seeds for cool climate flowers in the fall to harvest fresh cut flowers in the spring. Her lecture inspired us to try some of the annuals that love that cool shoulder-season between late winter and early summer. Among other things we decided to try lupines as annuals, rather than perennials. Though I was dubious, I found an inexpensive source for Lupinus polyphyllus seeds and gave them to the propagator at work. They were sown in early autumn of last year, quickly made size, and were planted-out in late October/early November, about the same time as the pansies were planted. Being hardy to at least zone 4, I knew they would survive our winter, and indeed, their foliage remained pristine and attractive, even through one of the worst winters in many years. Perhaps that cold weather was what they liked, because by early May it was apparent we were in for a spectacular show.

Lupinus 'Band of Nobles' (6)

Lupinus 'The Chatelaine' (3)

Lupinus 'The Chatelaine' (7)

Lupinus 'Band of Nobles' (3)

Lupinus 'The Chatelaine' (13)

Lupinus 'The Chatelaine' with Digitalis 'Foxy Hybrids'

Lupinus 'Band of Nobles' (5)

Lupinus 'The Chatelaine' (10)

So this is what I learned, but not necessarily about lupines:
  • While it is good to listen to the voice of experience, there is more than one voice.
  • Don't be afraid to try something new, especially if it can be defined or framed in a new way (from perennial to annual), or if your investment is small ($2.49 for a pack of seeds).
  • Look close to home. There are over 80 Lupinus species, and from one of the native plant experts at work, I was surprised to learn that L. perennis is native here in southeastern Virginia, and is tolerant of our hot and humid summers.
  • Be careful what you wish for, as what you covet may be someone else's bane. Ask gardeners in New Zealand or Scandinavia what they think of L. polyphyllus.


  1. they are pretty dramatic and I dont believe ive ever seen them in person..but I wish they grew in FL..lovely

  2. They are spectacular. So what state are they in now?? It's been cooler than usual here in northern VA, so maybe down your way as well? Not turning to mush, yet?

    I too just learned about L perennis but haven't tried them.. I've always wondered how the Texas bluebonnet would do here--I remember seeing them growing in the grass around the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, the median of highways and other seemingly inhospitable "wild" places. Tougher than they look!

  3. I share you love for the tall skinny summer bloomers. Digitalis is my all time favorite weed. Verbasum didn't survive in my PNW garden. So sad. I'm inspired by your post! What an eye popping display. I'll be looking to plant Lupine this fall.

  4. I love your post, as always. Your pictures are also divine! I agree with your advice, "While it is good to listen to the voice of experience, there is more than one voice." I have found that to be true as well. I have an intuitive nature about my garden that I rely on and I pay attention. It is good to also not be afraid to try things, as you do! I love it!

  5. Lupines always bring to mind the Monty Python skit with them. I did not know of the native.

  6. I'm glad I'm reading this, I saw this plant in Nebraska and thought it would never do good here. Besides I have tried a couple of times, but I've sowed the seeds in the spring time.

    Beautiful pictures!

  7. They run rampant in Iceland too.

  8. Great lessons, indeed! I feel the same way about tall, spiring blooms and Lupines are a favorite. What a spectacular collection you have. This would be a great post for the Lessons Learned meme!

  9. Great looking flowers and great post. So often we tend to just show gorgeous pix. I really liked your summing up of what you learned. And the foxgloves look pretty great too. Most of my foxgloves croaked in the early spring during our snow/thaw mess. There were so many seedlings last year that I thinned them out. Now I am wishing I had left more as I only have three tiny plants about 15 inches high instead of four or five feet!

  10. The lupines are beautiful! Is there a "Carolina Lupine"? - I have seen a stretch of highway between Hertford and Elizabeth City planted with yellow lupines, blooming in summer. Will you run a trial and attempt the same with a tall delphinium like Pacific Giant?

  11. I just planted a few last year a friend passed on to me and they made it through the winter but no blooms yet. I like the attractive foliage so if they will survive on our ugly mound I will add more. Yours are very impressive!

  12. Thanks Les. I'm going to try starting some seeds this fall. I love the symmetry too.

  13. Spectacular display! We sell out of the plants early in the garden center here in southeast New Hampshire. Everyone loves lupines... and Lisa Ziegler! She is amazing.

  14. Were the seeds sown indoors and transplanted outdoors around October?