A deep seeded lupine mystery

Times Staff Writer

LUPINES are spring on a stalk -- scented plumes in blue, purple, red and yellow surrounded by a slowly moving haze of bees. Once they were L.A.’s most common wildflowers, thriving in spent soils on vestiges of winter rains. Yet as the city has become developed, one rarely, if ever, sees lupines cultivated in town. Ask even the most skilled gardeners why, and they will confess that they don’t know. Theirs died.

It might be that the seeds were not scarified enough, the gardeners will say.

Or the seeds lacked sufficient winter chill.

Or the soil was too rich.

Or they hadn’t been through the digestive track of a squirrel that had been eaten by an owl.


After years of failure, and having had such good gardeners as the local head of the Garden Conservancy and board chair of the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants confess failure with lupines too, I venture the following theory as to why our most thrilling wildflowers only thrive apart from most of us.

They must be planted by the hands of innocents. Lots of hands of lots of innocents.

This is the result of an admittedly inadvertent but at the same time semi-controlled experiment. The seeds were bought at the same place at the same time, and they came from the same packs. They were planted last autumn in two gardens with nearly identical conditions, my home and a courtyard garden in the elementary school two blocks down the street. In my garden, the three lupines to germinate soon disappeared. At the school, to which I had donated the seed, the spring bloom was so spectacular that for a brief interval, the grouchiest custodians stopped complaining about drifting mulch.

There was only one difference in the sowing. I seeded only once. The school beds were seeded over and over again in class after class, as many as four times a week. A teacher and I didn’t realize it at the time, but all those fat little fingers were doing what lupines do in the wild: ensuring survival by profligacy.

We started in October with a mix of blue sky lupines (Lupinus nanus), purple arroyo lupines (Lupinus succulentus), yellow chick lupines (Lupinus microcarpus densiflorus) and northern pine lupines (Lupinus albicaulis). Tossed in with them were poppies, gilia, clarkia and a classroom crop that lent an unexpected grace note -- wheat.

By January, the lupines’ tap roots were plumbing the first rain and the unmistakable foliage, those funny, flat-faced arrangements with eight or so leaves seemed to be like 1960s pop art springing out of the winter earth. The school had dozens, so many that they were volunteering in potted blueberries.

By February, my three seedlings at home had disappeared, but the plants up the street were taking on their signature small bush shape and the first spires began to appear. By March, scented plumes floated above the foliage in great spires.

Lupines are in the pea family, and where the blue and purple ones produced seed pods like sugar peas, the yellow chick lupines produced fat fuzzy clusters of seven seeds set at exact intervals. Shell one of these and one is hit by the aroma of a fresh snap pea. For those who resist the impulse to deadhead and allow lupine seeds to dry on the plant, one can observe the pods slowly split, then open like curled ribbon to drop their seeds.

Allowing the petals of a lupine to age and drop and the beanstalk to brown slowly provides a vivid demonstration of the fertility gap that has helped banish lupines from our garden. As nature designed lupines, and these are only the small annual ones, each plant produces 20, even 30 stalks. Each of these in turn matures into roughly 40 seed pods, and each pod contains roughly five seeds. That’s 4,000 to 6,000 seeds. By contrast, a standard 1-ounce seed packet might contain the equivalent of two or three spires, or 600 seeds. In short, a single lupine bush evolved to throw down 10 times the amount of seed for one plant as that often is suggested on a standard seed packet for a whole bed.

If you need the space for a summer crop, catch seeds as they ripen -- the pods should be dry and about to split -- and save them for the next growing season. The trick to storing seeds over summer is to keep them cool, dark and dry. Then after pulling out the tomatoes, or gourds, you should reseed in autumn to give the plants time to establish deep roots during cool winter months. Most gardening books recommend various foreplay, including chilling the seeds, soaking or scarring them to encourage germination. We did none of it, though lots of little sneakered feet running through our flowerbed might have assisted with the scarification.

So one reason for routine failure of lupines to germinate in home gardens is quantity of seed. However, nothing about the success at the school explained my failure at home with the three lupines that did germinate but disappeared.

If I lived in the countryside, or adjoining it, deer could be the problem. Lupine leaves are still green and spring grass dies back in early summer. By June, they are flaunting seed pods before the rummaging herbivores. According to old agricultural reports, farmers in Florida used to and may still grow what they call “forage lupines” for grazing. They get two crops in one: feed for their animals and free fertilizer. Lupines, like other species in the pea family, take nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil. However, take care before tossing lupine seeds near rangeland. A small number of species of these largely good guy plants -- L. arboreus, L. latifolius, L. leucophyllus -- have alkaloids that make them toxic to sheep and cattle.

I live in central Los Angeles, and a deer who makes it to my house is venison. The culprit had to be something else. After three lupines vanished, I grabbed a trowel, strode down to the school and stole six seedlings. Contrary to warnings in gardening books, this loot transplanted without so much as a wilt. I know because I checked, every morning, every evening. The plants could not have been doing better before one morning they weren’t there, their spots marked only by iridescent snail trails.

I went back to the gardening books, this time looking under the entry for perennials. Sure enough, in the newish potting bench bible -- “California Native Plants for the Garden” by Carol Bornstein, Bart O’Brien and David Fross -- in the entry for silver bush lupine, there was this aside: “In cool coastal gardens, snails, slugs and caterpillars can be devastating. Birds and small mammals are particularly fond of large, nutritious lupine seeds.”

Aha. The school garden where the lupines thrived is engulfed in almost four acres of asphalt, forbidding slithering distance for a snail from a neighboring home. By contrast, my garden relies on opossums to control the nighttime armies of snails that browse our long, lush block.

As for birds, there are birds at the school, but not nearly the number at my house, where I designed the garden precisely to attract them and even feed them to amp up the tweet factor.

So it was an easy calculation of how much more seed I would need to have the birds and lupines too. If I’d seeded as much as evolution and the plant itself intended, roughly 10 1-ounce sacks, I would have had a thrilling flush of flowers.

However, it’s hard to know what to do about the snails. Flower gardening loses its charm when it becomes an arm of chemical warfare. The lesson of the lupine may require us to accept that our most spectacular indigenous wildflower may always be a plant apart, the thing that draws us into the hillsides beyond our artificial Edens.


Emily Green can be reached at