Lupine Flowers Offer Vivid ColorOften seen carpeting meadows and mountainsides, these striking native wildflowers make superb ornamental plants in both formal and informal gardens
If you’re looking for a showy summer-flowering perennial that will stand out from the crowd, lupine is a sure front-runner. The tall, lush spires of vividly colored flowers are like floral traffic cones, compelling you to slow down and take notice. In addition to their irresistible beauty, lupines are also valued for their ability to flourish in challenging environments, including sandy nutrient-poor soils, high elevations, and areas with cool summers.
“Just being able to grow lupines would be reason enough to move to a cool-summer climate,” says Larry Hodgson, author of Perennials for Every Purpose. “Not only do lupines thrive, but they self-sow with a vengeance.”
But relocating isn’t the only option for gardeners who want to plant these not-so-southern belles in hotter regions of the country. Many varieties can be grown as annuals outside of their comfort zone. And because lupine seeds are inexpensive, even the most frugal gardener can afford to plant them every season.
Annuals or short-lived perennials
Typically 4-8; best treated as annuals south of zone 6
Late spring to early or midsummer
Length of bloom:
3 to 5 weeks
1 to 5 feet
A member of the pea family (Fabaceae), lupine flowers are similar to those of pea blossoms but are packed tightly together on conical spikes that stand tall and erect above palmate foliage. The blossoms open from the bottom up and often display more than one color on the same plant, in hues ranging from soft pastels to deep reds and violet blues. After the flowers fade, they are replaced by flat pea-shaped seedpods.
- Attracts an array of beneficial pollinators to the garden, including bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
- Deer resistant.
- Easy to grow from seed and will readily self-sow, which often compensates for their short lifespan.
- Like other members of the pea family, lupine can improve soil fertility by fixing nitrogen in the air and making it usable by other plants.
- All parts of the plant are toxic if ingested.
- Difficult if not impossible to transplant because of deep taproots that resent being disturbed once established.
- Often wither or are short-lived in areas with hot, humid summers.
WHAT TO PLANT
Hybrid lupines are the most ornamental of the garden lupines and offer fuller flower spikes and a multitude of color options. Although most are hybrids of several species, they are often pigeonholed under L. polyphyllus. The popular Russell hybrids, introduced in 1937 by English gardener George Russell, have long been the gold standard, but you’ll also find many new-generation strains derived from the Russells that come in dwarf forms and eye-popping color combinations. “Don’t search for specific Russell lupine cultivars—just choose plants according to whatever color interests you from among the hundreds available,” recommends Hodgson.
In addition to the hybrids, there are several lovely wildflower lupines that grow especially well in gardens in certain regions of the country, including wild perennial lupine (L. perennis), a native to the eastern U.S.; Texas bluebonnet (L. texensis); and golden lupine (L. densiflorus var. aureus), a California native. Once they settle into a hospitable environment, they will grow there indefinitely by self-sowing.
Seeds vs. potted plants:
Lupines can be started from seed, dormant bare-root plants, or potted plants, but seeds are easier to find and offer the broadest selection of cultivars. Be careful when buying nursery-grown plants. Lupines have fast-growing taproots that can become constrained if the plants languish in their containers too long.
GROW YOUR OWN
Plant lupine in full sun in areas with cool summers, but give them filtered sunlight in warmer climates. “Although full sun is best for outstanding blooms, you may have to compromise and plant them in partial shade in order to keep them cool and happy,” says Hodgson. If you grow lupine in the South, find a spot in the garden with afternoon shade.
Lupines love loose, sandy soil because it doesn’t impede the growth of their deep tap roots. In denser clay soils, loosen the soil before planting by working in compost. Lupines also like slightly acidic conditions. If your soil is too alkaline, you can lower the pH by adding sulfur (see Garden Soil 101).
When to plant:
If planting lupine from seed, direct sow in the garden in late fall or early winter for blooms the following spring. You can also sow seeds in the spring 4 to 6 weeks before your average last frost date, but your plants will bloom later in the summer. Plant container-grown plants in the spring after the danger of frost has passed.
Planting from seed:
Lupine seeds have very tough outer shells that need to be softened up before sowing. You can do this by soaking the seeds in warm water for a few hours or by scarifying them with sandpaper or a small file to help them absorb water. (See Growing Perennials from Seed.) Sow seeds at a shallow depth of about ¼ inch under loose topsoil, and keep them evenly moist until they germinate. Seedlings will emerge 15 to 25 days after planting.
Planting from containers:
Potted lupine plants are typically perennial cultivars that you can put in the ground immediately in the spring. Space plants about 2 to 3 feet apart, and loosen the soil deeply to accommodate the long taproots. Amend the planting hole with organic matter, if necessary, to improve drainage.
Using in the garden:
Few plants are as effective as lupines for creating a strong vertical statement in the garden. You’ll often see them planted in ensembles of mixed colors in cottage gardens, where they have been a staple since colonial times. They also are impressive when planted en masse in meadow or wildflower gardens, especially when allowed to naturalize freely. Although lupines don’t make good container plants because of their long taproots, the bold, spiky blooms are ideal for use as “thrillers” in cut-flower arrangements.
CARING FOR LUPINE
After planting lupines, keep the soil evenly moist to ensure good root development. Once your plants are deeply rooted, they can tolerate dryer conditions and will only need water during periods of drought. Applying a layer of mulch will help lock in soil moisture and keep the roots cool.
Because of lupine’s ability to absorb nitrogen directly from the atmosphere, they grow quite happily in nitrogen-poor soil without the need for additional fertilizer. In fact, they actually enrich the soil in which they grow.
Pest and disease control:
Aphids and powdery mildew are lupine’s biggest nemeses and can cause a lot of damage by disfiguring the leaves and inhibiting flower development. Although there are several natural methods you can use to keep aphids under control (see Eco-Friendly Pest Control), horticultural oils are often more effective and will also do a good job of preventing powdery mildew. As a last resort, prune affected plants back to the ground to encourage healthy new growth.
Pruning and deadheading:
Deadheading spent flowers will often encourage a second flush of blooms in early fall, especially in areas with cool summers. Once the foliage starts to yellow at the end of the season, you can cut perennial species back to the ground.
Because lupines don’t like being divided and transplanted, the best way to propagate them is by seed. To encourage self-sowing, avoid deadheading and pruning and allow the flowers to form seedpods. Perennial species can also be propagated from cuttings taken from shoots at the base of the plant in spring. Be aware that lupine cultivars propagated from homegrown seed may not stay true to the original color and will often revert to shades of violet.
Lupinus polyphyllus ‘The Chatelaine’ - Buy now on Amazon
This aristocratic beauty — a member of the Russell hybrid 'Band of Nobles' series — features sweetly scented, rosy pink flowers accented with white banners. It looks magnificent alone or mixed with one or more of the other varieties in the series, including ‘Chandelier’ (buttery yellow), 'My Castle' (scarlet red), 'Noble Maiden' (creamy white), 'The Pages' (brick red), and ‘The Governor’ (violet blue and white bicolor). All grow to over 3 feet tall, making them colorful additions to the back of the border.
3 to 4 feet
Lupinus polyphyllus Tutti Frutti - Buy now on Amazon
Remember the joy you felt after opening your first box of crayons? Tutti Frutti™ gives you a similar array of exhilarating hues, ready to color in any bare spots in your garden. The vivacious color combos include dark purple and magenta, persimmon and gold, butter and cream, pink and primrose, two-tone pink, and purple with coral. Perennial in zones 4-8, Tutti-Frutti blooms its first year from seed, so it can be grown as an annual in most climates.
36 to 40 inches
Lupinus texensis ‘Alamo Fire’ - Buy now on Amazon
This exceptional annual variety of Texas bluebonnet was originally discovered growing in the wild near San Antonio. Also called maroon bluebonnet, it features distinctive reddish-maroon petals with white tips and bears more numerous flower clusters than its kin. Like most wild lupines, it is drought tolerant and thrives in sandy soil.
1 to 2 feet
Lupinus hartwegii nanus ‘Pixie Delight’ - Buy now on Amazon
This diminutive annual lupine is ideal for smaller gardens where taller lupines would be too overwhelming. Cultivated from a California native wildflower (L. nanus), it grows quickly from seed and blooms profusely throughout the summer months, until the cooler temperatures of autumn arrive. The softly colored blooms come in an array of pretty pastels including light blue, pink, white, and violet.
12 to 18 inches
Lupinus densiflorus var. aureus (Golden lupine)
A magnet for a diversity of bees, this radiant golden-yellow wildflower is recommended by The Xerces Society for use in pollinator habitat restoration in its native state of California. Although indigenous to the West Coast, golden lupine is an annual that can be grown just about anywhere given the right conditions. It reseeds readily and tolerates drought and poor soils.
2 to 3 feet
Lupinus Popsicle Series
This midsized hybrid blooms about two weeks earlier than other hybrids, giving you nonstop color from spring well into summer. The flowers come in a yummy palette of ice-cream parlor colors including vanilla yellow, grape purple, cherry red, bubblegum pink, and a variety of bicolors.
18 to 24 inches
Lupinus ‘Manhattan Lights’
A member of the Westcountry™ series of lupines — a collection of vibrantly colored hybrids developed in the United Kingdom — this spectacular variety is as dazzling as the Manhattan skyline, displaying a dramatic contrast of deep purple and neon-yellow blooms that run down the entire length of tall skyscraper-like flower spikes. Other colors and bicolors in the series include ‘Blacksmith’ (royal purple and white), ‘Desert Sun’ (golden yellow), ‘Gladiator’ (yellow and orange), ‘Masterpiece’ (purple and orange), ‘Persian Slipper’ (periwinkle blue and white), and ‘Red Rum’ (magenta and red).
2 to 3 feet
Lupinus polyphyllus 'Gallery Yellow’
With the exception of golden lupine, this may be the loveliest yellow lupine to grace the garden, displaying luscious blooms the color of buttered popcorn. It also has a compact growth habit and long flowering period lasting several weeks. Other hues in the Gallery series include pink, red, indigo, and white.
18 to 24 inches