My Wild Lupines aren’t really wild

I had a disappointment yesterday.

My first lupine seeds germinated – it's such an exciting moment when one sees the soil pushed aside by the curl of an emerging cotyledon (the first leaf)!

I had planned for some time to write about the importance of growing Wild Lupines, which are the host plant for three butterflies classified as extirpated in Ontario. Extirpated means that they once lived in the wild here, that they still survive somewhere else in the world, but no longer eist in the wild in this province.

The Karner Blue (Plebejus melissa samuelis) and the Frosted Elfin (Callophrys irus) rely exclusively on the Wild Lupine, it is the only plant their caterpillars are able to digest. The Wild Lupine is also the host plant for the Eastern Persius Duskywing (Erynnis persius persius), although this butterfly can use Wild or False Indigo (Baptisia australis) for food. In all three cases the last sightings were in the 1980s, in two areas in southwestern Ontario.

My seed has been collected from my own plants, the parent plant having been grown from seed labelled Lupinus perennis (Eastern, Wild or Sundial Lupine) that I purchased a few years ago from a large Ontario-based seed company.

I knew that it’s important to grow the specific host plant, and not the Bigleaf or Garden Lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), which can fool the butterfly into depositing eggs – it’s not suitable food for the resulting caterpillars that will die from starvation or be poisoned. (The same happens to the caterpillars of the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) when the females mistake the alien invasive Dog-strangling Vine (Vincetoxicum rossicum, formerly known as Cynanchum rossicum) for a Milkweed (Asclepias) species; both are members of the Apocynaceae family.)

The problem is that the Bigleaf Lupine is in extensive use horticulturally, and is one of the parent plants of the very popular candy-coloured Russell hybrids, developed in the 1920s and ‘30s by English plant breeder George Russell. Wikipedia has a good account of how Russell “disliked the blue colours, as they reflected too closely the original plants imported from America almost a 100 years previously.

"Although Russell worked hard to suppress it, lupines left unchecked over several generations will eventually revert to the old blues. Almost all garden lupines today are hybrids of the Russell hybrids due to their ease of cross-pollinating with each other."

And therein lies the problem. Wikipedia, again: “There is strong concern that Russell Lupine DNA significantly contaminates large percentages of commercially-available wild perennial lupine, Lupinus perennis, seed, making it potentially unsuitable for the larvae of the endangered Karner Blue butterfly… Those who wish to protect the Karner should prevent the introduction of Lupinus polyphyllus and Russell Lupines into the remaining areas where the butterfly continues to exist, to prevent the toxic lupine hybridization.”

In her book Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East (2010), Elizabeth Summers noted that in Maine, where the Karner is also extirpated, residents had become so fond of the introduced lupine that control efforts by the National Park Service were met with strong resistance, “possibly precluding reintroduction of the endangered butterfly. The attraction to a beautiful flower is understandable and one reason that it is far better to prevent such introductions in the first place.”

It is only yesterday, while researching this blog, that I became truly suspicious of the handsome blue-flowered plants that have given me so much pleasure in recent years. I have re-examined my photographs, and regretfully concluded that they are more consistent with the description of the Bigleaf in Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, with larger, lower leaves and larger, more dense racemes of flowers. Then I ran a picture through a plant identification app and it came back immediately with “Lupinus polyphyllus.”

It's perhaps no surprise. The seed I purchased commercially may have been contaminated, or in the intervening years on my property, a bee might have introduced pollen from a nearby Russell hybrid. The gardening world is fraught with unintended consequences.

My germinating lupines are now destined for the compost heap, as are the plants I have in my garden – fortunately there are only three, they have not proliferated because my yard is becoming increasingly shaded and lupines thrive in full sun. I will examine each one as it grows this spring, but I suspect what I discovered in the photographs will hold true.

I have contacted customers who purchased lupines from me last year and will look through previous records to contact any from previous years. I had a failed crop a couple of times thanks to mice, so that turns out to have been fortunate, as can be the way with gardening setbacks.

And I have placed an order for Wild Lupine plants with the North American Native Plant Society. It has a sale coming up on Saturday May 20 at Toronto Botanical Garden. But I will take nothing for granted with regard to the new arrivals, they will undergo careful scrunity as they grow.

I see every seed as a message of hope to the future, and the collecting, saving and germinating of seed as an act of trust that we undertake as stewards. So getting rid of seedlings is sad. But with knowledge comes the ability to do better.

On the upside

I got an award, from the Severn Sound Environmental Association, for being a Champion of Environmental Sustainability and Stewardship. This was for my work with invasive species at Tiny Marsh. Many thanks to the SSEA, and thanks especially to those who work with me, some of whom were on hand for a very enjoyable evening at the Coldwater Community Hall. At Tiny Marsh, we have the Big Pull to control Garlic Mustard (next date, April 22), and the Phrag Free Tiny Marsh project to control Phragmites australis (email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you would like to help).

Change of heart for gardening fanatic

The Washington Post recently ran a column by a gardening fanatic who has seen the light. "This year, the bloom is off the rose. And the hydrangea. And the rhododendron. And all the rest. It turns out I’ve been filling my yard with a mix of ecological junk food and horticultural terrorists," writes Dana Milbank in a piece headed 'I’m no genius with genuses, but your garden is killing the Earth.' He has converted to native plants, with a vengeance. What prompted the change of heart? He enrolled in “basic training” with the Virginia Master Naturalist program. And he's undaunted; a whole new and exciting gardening world has opened up for him. Link.
Bob Turner
- 27 April 2023 at 02:40am

Funny (or sadly) enough, a couple years ago I remember another Ontario vendor of native seeds also had the exact same happen to her. Hope the new plants are true to their labels!
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