Why You Need to Grow Lupines
Are you growing lupines on your property? Lupines can help you make the living world around you come alive with abundance for people, plants, and wildlife. While you may have seen lupines for sale in a box store nursery, there are dozens of different types of lupines for you to consider. But they all have some things in common. Let’s dive into these amazing nitrogen-fixing plants!
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When I started planting on my property, one of the first types of seeds I put into the ground were lupines.
Why was growing lupines a priority for me?
Well, it turns out that in addition to having beautiful flowers that attract pollinators and other beneficial insects, lupines are also nitrogen-fixers with deep taproots.
This makes them fantastic support plants for your other plants. Plus, you can easily grow them from seed, making it easy and cheap to get them established!
So, are you interested in learning more about lupines? Keep reading to learn more about these fantastic plants. But before you do, make sure to grab your free and native plant tracker to keep track of natives lupines in your area.
There are likely several lupine species native to your area, grab the tracker and check-out the blog post "How to Find Native Plants for Your Property" to learn how to find lupines (and other plants) native to your area!
Why Grow Lupines?
Lupines are amazing plants. On our property, they come into bloom en masse in May, erupting in striking cascades of purple blooms against the lush greenery.
They’re nitrogen-fixers, making them a natural fertilizer for your plants. When I intermix lupines in with my other plants, I can often see a big difference in how well the plants do if there are lupines close by.
Just be sure the lupines don’t shade out the other plants!
The taproot is another reason lupines are an excellent plant for your property. It stretches deep into the earth, making it drought-tolerant and also helping to break up compacted soil.
I used fall leaves combined with lupines in my efforts to transform an old parking lot into a food forest. In just one year, the lupines had an amazing impact on breaking up soil that was deeply compacted after years of having cars parked on it.
I could barely get a shovel into it when I first started, but now the soil is soft and workable.
What Are Lupines?
Lupines are legumes that are members of the Lupinus genus. Being part of the legume family, all lupines fix nitrogen.
The leaves and flowers tend to look similar across the different lupine species, but they do have a wide range of growing habits.
Once you learn how to identify a single lupine species, you will generally recognize others when you see them. But telling the difference between different species of lupines can be challenging.
Here in western WA there are several native types of lupines. At the moment I have the following growing on my property:
There are several other lupines native to my area that I have yet to plant, including a small miniature lupine that is an annual and only grows to about 6 inches in height.
In most box store nurseries, you’ll find the Russel hybrid lupines for sale. But I recommend looking up the native lupines in your area and try growing those. The Russel hybrids flower well, but they don’t support the range of wildlife that native lupines will.
So when possible, consider planting lupines native to your area to get the most benefits for your property!
But the other 3 are much bigger than the little miniature lupine and are perennial. Riverbank is evergreen and gets fairly large (4-5 feet tall on my property) and turns into a woody shrub during its 2nd year. Though it only lives for 2-3 years, while the bigleaf lupine dies back each winter but is much longer-living and does not get woody.
These 4 species of lupines, all native to my area, have very different growth habits, so they each fill a different niche in the local ecosystem.
How to Grow Lupines
While each lupine species will be a bit different, in general it’s best to grow lupines directly from seed. Depending on your climate, fall and winter can be a great time to sow lupine seeds. The seeds will sit over winter soaking in moisture and then germinate in the spring.
But if you want to wait till spring to plant, I’ve also had a lot of luck soaking lupine seeds overnight in warm water. I then sow the seeds the next day and they tend to germinate within a couple weeks.
The seeds should not be buried, but they do need good soil contact. I always push them down just a bit into the soil, so when they sprout they can send their root straight down.
Lupines develop a deep taproot, which makes them drought-tolerant, but it also means they don’t like to be transplanted.
Some lupines are fantastic for chop-and-drop. I like to cut back my riverbank lupines in the spring at the start of their 2nd year to quickly generate a bunch of high nitrogen green material to mulch around my other plants. I can follow up with a 2nd cutting a bit later in the spring and still give the lupines time to flower. Experiment with the lupines you grow and see which are good for chop-and-drop!
I have gently pulled up a lupine seedling that still didn’t have it’s first true leaves but it already had a taproot that went down several inches into the ground! Imagine the root size that a fully grown lupine could have!
But there are exceptions to the rule. There is one lupine native to my area that I have not tried growing yet—that is the broadleaf lupine.
This lupine was one of the pioneers that helped the land recover after Mt. Saint Helens erupted. It has an extensive root system (in addition to a taproot) and can sprout from its roots. Root fragments of the broadleaf lupine can also regrow which was how it quickly recovered after the eruption.
This is a great example of the wide range of growing habits found amongst lupines. When you go to grow lupines try different types and see which work best for you and your needs!
Time to Grow Lupines
I first grew lupines in my hedgerows mixed amongst my shrubs and trees. They quickly filled in the gaps between my young trees and shrubs to the point that I had to cut them back a bit to keep them from covering up the smaller plants. But they also supported those plants by shading the soil and fixing nitrogen.
But one word of caution I would give before you grow lupines is that they can be poisonous to livestock. Though this is not universally true—there are species of lupine that don’t seem to cause an issue for livestock but do your research before growing lupines if they will be browsed by livestock.
There are some lupines that people can eat but these are mostly found growing in the Mediterranean. Most other lupines are not edible for humans. But you can still enjoy the flowers!
I think lupines should be a part of the toolbox for anyone who wants to cultivate abundance for people, plants and wildlife.
Lupines aren’t the right plant for all situations, but they provide beauty, support pollinators, fix nitrogen, provide biomass through chop-and-drop and help breakup the soil with their taproots.
If you grow lupines that are native to your area you can get even more benefits to your property by supporting local insects that may rely on native lupines.
To help you find native lupines make sure to check-out the blog post "How to Find Native Plants for Your Property" to learn how to find lupines (and other plants) native to your area!
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