Native Lupines Fix Nitrogen and Support Wildlife – Let’s Grow Them
In this episode, we’re going to look at the native lupines of western Washington and why you should grow them. And with over 200 species of lupines found in North and South America and Northern Africa and the Mediterranean, there could easily be native lupines where you live too. Let’s dive into native lupines.
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I’ve always loved the beauty of lupines. There is something about their tall flower stalks that I just like. And I think my inner kid just loves that they make what looks a lot like pea pods.
It’s fun to split them open when dry and remove the little black and grey seeds.
But often the lupines that people grow are cultivar varieties that have been developed to have a specific color or other feature.
And this often means that people are only growing a few types of lupines.
But there are over 200 lupines with most found in the Americas but some also found in southern Europe and Northern Africa.
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Here in western Washington, there are 10 different types of native lupines. Check out the resources section for a list of all 10.
And they come in a wide range of sizes and growth types. There is the little annual bicolor lupine that grows only a few inches tall to the decent size riverbank lupine which grows as a small woody shrub.
This is why I want you to look into native lupines in your area.
All these lupines fix nitrogen and support wildlife and with so many different species of lupines, you can likely find ones that will fit your growing space.
I’m even exploring adding some of the short-growing beach lupines to my vegetable garden.
So let’s look at why you should grow native lupines and how to get the most benefits from them.
But before we do I want to take a quick moment to read a recent review we got on Apple Podcasts from Chi Adee.
Growing with Nature has gotten me back into centering natives and perennials in my yard and garden after a fifteen year hiatus. Thank you for the blog, tip sheets, videos and podcasts. I’m learning so much and the yard and garden is more alive and vibrant than ever.
Thank you so much Chi—I’m so glad you’re finding the information useful and it’s great to hear that you’re planting natives and perennials in your yard and garden.
And if you like what you hear today, then please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever else you listen. Your review will help more people find us.
People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.
Okay, let’s get started.
Further Reading: Growing with Nature episodes and blog posts with more information about the topics covered in this episode.
- Why You Need to Grow Lupines
- How to Find Native Plants for Your Property
- Let’s Design a Fruit Tree Guild
- Let’s Explore a Food Forest – Plus 3 Tips to Get Started
- Nitrogen Fixers – What They Are and Tips to Get Started
Books and Other Resources
- Wikipedia page all about lupines
Plant List: Lupines native to western Washington.
- Lupinus albicaulis – sicklekeel lupine
- Lupinus bicolor – field lupine, small-flowered lupine, two-color lupine
- Lupinus latifolius – broadleaf lupine
- Lupinus lepidus – prairie lupine
- Lupinus littoralis – seashore lupine
- Lupinus microcarpus – chick lupine
- Lupinus oreganus – Kincaid's lupine, Oregon lupine
- Lupinus pachylobus – big-pod lupine
- Lupinus polyphyllus – bigleaf lupine, large-leaved lupine
- Lupinus rivularis – riverbank lupine, stream bank lupine
Native Lupines of Western Washington
The first native lupines that I grew were the bigleaf lupine and riverbank lupine.
While these are both lupines and both are found in the lowlands around the Puget Sound they grow very differently.
Bigleaf lupines look a lot like the lupines sold in most big box store nurseries. The flowers are a bit less showy but many of the cultivators are hybrids that include bigleaf lupines in their ancestry.
These lupines get big leaves—hence their name—and can reach several feet (upwards of a meter) in height.
But they also die back every fall.
Riverbank lupines on the other hand grow over several years getting large woody stems that kind of bend and contort. Almost like a contorted filbert.
Their flowers are less showy but still nice.
And they’re evergreen which makes them nice in the winter.
But they do tend to be short-lived perennials lasting only a few years but they volunteer easily so they tend to replace themselves.
These 2 types show how different native lupines can be. I grow a lot of both of these along with some broadleaf lupines which are very similar to the bigleaf lupines.
And I’m looking at growing seashore lupines in my vegetable garden because they tend to stay short to the ground with small flower stalks getting up to around 6 inches.
This could make them a great option to add between my tomatoes and other tall veggies.
But there are even more native lupines here in western Washington and many more in other regions.
So what type of native lupines are you going to grow?
Grow Native Lupines to Support Wildlife
One of the main reasons why I grow lupines is how good they are at supporting wildlife. Native pollinators just love them.
Bumblebees especially seem to like our native lupines.
But many more species of insects and other wildlife rely on lupines.
One awesome feature of lupines is that they tend to have hollow stems. And the ones like bigleaf lupines that die back every fall leave behind a bunch of large dry hollow stems.
These stems tend to last a year or so before breaking down.
And being hollow they make great homes for native bees and other beneficial insects.
Think about how those native bee homes you can buy always have a bunch of hollow tubes in them. Plants like lupines with hollow stems provide the same type of homes for native bees.
Because of this I always leave the old flower stems from my lupines. Some I leave standing straight up and the ones that fall over into my paths get cut partway down. But I still leave the cut pieces on the ground.
This is a great way to provide a ton of habitat without much effort and once the native lupines are established it’s free since they tend to self-seed.
Plus, all those cut stems also help keep the soil covered as mulch.
Grow Native Lupines to Build Healthy Soil
But providing an abundance of chop-and-drop mulch is just a minor part of how native lupines can help you build soil.
All lupines are in the legume family—just like beans and peas. This is why lupine flowers and seed pods look so much like peas.
And just like other legumes, native lupines also fix nitrogen through a relationship with soil microbes found in little nodules on the roots of lupines.
But lupines take soil building a step further.
They also tend to get massive taproots that can be several inches across and go down deep into the ground.
Smaller lupines will of course have smaller roots but this is a big reason why I like riverbank lupines.
These lupines grow for several years and during that time they reach the size of a small shrub with woody stems and a large woody taproot.
When my riverbank lupines die I just cut them off at the ground leaving their massive taproot behind to rot in the soil.
This can be an amazing way to not only add nitrogen to the soil but also break up compacted soil and add organic material deep in the soil.
Riverbank lupine taproots can easily go down for several feet and likely much further.
Between fixing nitrogen, getting large taproots, and providing chop-and-drop mulch there are few plants I like more for soil building than native lupines.
Getting Started with Lupines
So are you ready to try growing native lupines on your property? To help you get started I’ve included some links in the resources section to resources for finding native plants and a list of native lupines found in western Washington.
Make sure to check them out.
And once you’ve found some native lupines you want to try getting started tends to be easy.
Lupines grow easily from seed and this is often the best way to get started with them.
Each type of lupine will be different but I’ve had a lot of luck with spreading lupine seeds in early fall over bare soil.
Just broadcast them over the surface of the soil and press them down but don’t worry about burying them. The point of pushing them down is to make sure they have good soil contact.
Depending on the type of lupine and your climate they might germinate that fall and just stay as little seedlings through the winter. Come spring they will take off.
Some types might not germinate until the spring but the cold wet winter will help break down the coating on the seeds making it easier for them to germinate when the weather warms.
But I’ve also had luck with soaking lupine seeds overnight in lukewarm water and sowing them in the spring.
Try both approaches and see what works. Riverbank lupines do great with either fall or spring sowing. But other lupines may be pickier about what they need to germinate.
You can also sometimes buy native lupines from native plant nurseries but they’re not likely to all survive due to their big taproots.
Look for young plants if you go that route.
I’ve seen newly germinated lupine seedlings with roots that were already going down 6 inches. So the younger you can get them planted the better.
As far as where to grow native lupines I like planting them around my fruit trees and other perennial plants.
As nitrogen fixers, they can help your other plants grow. This makes them a great addition to any food forest.
But smaller lupines can also be a great option mixed in between smaller plants. Lupines come in lots of different sizes so see what the ones in your area are like and mix them in where you can.
There is even a lupine tree in Mexico.
And don’t hesitate to chop-and-drop them once they’re established. Lupines tend to fit best with other plants when they’re treated as a support plant for your other plants.
I tend to chop-and-drop mine once in the spring and then again after they’re done flowering.
Native lupines are great plants and if you live in the Americas, southern Europe, or northern Africa I highly recommend giving them a try.
And stay tuned for our next episode where I’m going to share some lessons I’ve learned after dealing with drought and extreme heat this summer.
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