by Julia Frisbie
posted June 27, 2021
It’s lupine season! This plant will always remind me of the happy summer weeks I spent in the mountains of northeastern Oregon as a child. I love seeing her by the roadside. I held her purple/blue spires in my arms on my wedding day. I’ve slipped her seed pods into my pockets for years, and like Ms. Rumphius in a favorite children’s book, scattered them when we found a place to call our own.
Like all legumes, she works with a symbiotic bacteria to fix nitrogen in the soil, enough to meet her own needs and also share with neighbors. She has a long taproot that breaks up compacted earth. She can collect moisture from the air, with leaves shaped like tiny hands that cradle a single dewdrop in their palms. She makes a huge mass of greenery each year, only to lay it all down on the ground after the first frost, protecting soil from winter runoff and feeding the microbial community below. Her nectar feeds bees and her seeds feed birds.
In other words, she is a homemaker, showing up to disrupted or neglected soil and creating beauty and fertility. She can make something from almost nothing.
I’ve invited lupine to my yard as an early succession plant. Right after I mulched over most of the lawn in our front yard, I scattered lupine seeds. For several years, a long hedge of lupine has lived alongside what’s left of the grass:
As I add longer-lived plants to the landscape, I’m gradually pruning/removing the lupine to make space. Many perennials take years to get established and come into their own, and lupine fills out the garden around them while they bide their time. Lupine self-sows readily, but she’s easy enough to remove, so as long as I’m paying attention she doesn’t choke other plants out. Here’s a first-year peony growing in the shelter of lupine:
I often call on lupine as a companion plant for young trees. Planting a nitrogen-fixer in the same hole as a baby tree is something my partner learned while volunteering at the Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead on Orcas Island. I dig up the lupine, taproot and all, and plop it right in there among the roots of the sapling. Abundant nitrogen allows the sapling to make lots of new greenery (and, I think, helps it feel less lonely and more at home). Here’s a little plum tree hiding from deer among the lupine:
You can sow lupine any time of year, but my favorite way is to take my cue from the plant herself, and spread her seeds right after they pop from her wonderful fuzzy seed pods in July. I cut the seed heads when they get dry and begin to rattle, and then I pile them into a washtub basin and invite my four-year-old to thresh them by jumping up and down on the pods until the seeds are released. Then we winnow by pouring seeds back and forth between buckets in the middle of our street on a windy day. This ritual yields a quart of seed from our couple dozen plants. If you’d like some for your garden, I’d be delighted to give them to you. That’s part of how I respond with reciprocity to lupine: by finding good homes for her seeds. They’ll be part of Transition Fidalgo’s seed bank. Email email@example.com to get connected!