Sunday, October 4, 2020

Plant Story--Lupines, Little Wolves

Lupines, also spelled lupins, are plants in the pea family native (Fabaceae). More than 200 species are recognized, found native all across the world but especially the Americas. (Lupines in Texas and surrounding states are often called bluebonnets.) These are distinctive plants, the leaves tending to be compound with five or more leaflets projecting out from the center so they are hand- or star-like. The flowers are a tall spike of closed, pea-like blossoms, in colors from white to yellow to pink, blue, and purple. 

lupine, Lupinus, flowers and leaves

Like many legumes, lupines create nodules that harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Thus they have their own source of nitrogen and can grow on poor soils. This is a boon if you want to grow them but has allowed them to become invasive weeds. A handsome lupine from Alaska, Lupinus nootkatensis, has spread all over Iceland, hard to dislike since they are pretty, hard to like since they are crowding out native plants.
Lupinus nootkatensis in Iceland
Lupinus nootkatensis from Alaska, in Iceland

 Curiously, the name lupine is based on the invasiveness of lupines. Lupine/lupin is the Latin for wolf, lupus, as Harry Potter fans know from Professor Remus Lupin. The Romans observed that lupines invaded poor fields where the crops struggled to survive and interpreted the abundant lupine growth as consuming the nutrients needed by the crops, wolfing them down. They were plant wolves attacking crops in the fields. This is backward; actually lupines were fixing nitrogen that was lacking in the soil, adding nutrients. Important Greek and Roman authors, like Theophrastus and Columella, knew lupines enriched the soil. But the name has stuck.

The flowers are beautiful and can form a spectacular stand. They attract a wide variety of bees. In many species the leaves turn during the day, following the sun, After flowering, lupines create small bean-like seeds. 

Some of the dozens of lupine species are quite toxic, the leaves and particularly the seeds, containing quinolizidine alkaloids. Despite adding nitrogen to the soil they are often unwelcome in pastures because they cause birth defects to grazing animals and consuming large amounts of seeds will cause repiratory failure and animal death.

                                         lupine with pods

Thus it seems surprising that starting in ancient Egypt (300 BCE, maybe earlier) in southern Europe, lupine seeds were eaten as a bean. You can buy them today; they are usually sold pickled in brine. These are the seeds of the white or field lupine, Lupinus albus, a relatively common plant around the Mediterranean. They contain enough of quinozilidine alkaloids in the seeds that they had to be boiled and soaked before eating, indeed five days of soaking was necessary for them to be truly safe. In the last century "sweet" low quinozilidine varieties have been created. Rich in protein and oil, even with the long preparation, lupine beans were a  common food in ancient Rome. Actors used them as pretend coins in plays so often that the Romans used the phrase nummus lupinus, or just lupinus, lupine coins, meaning imitation or fake money (They were pale yellow, about the size and shape of a dime).  Lupine beans were largely replaced when beans (navy beans, lima beans, white beans, red beans, kidney beans, and more, all in the genus Phaseolus) were introduced from the Americas, since the American beans are much less bitter and require less preparation. Lupine beans can be found as a snack food in southern Europe (link).

Half way across the world, South Americans were the first to cultivate a lupine. Starting about 3,000 years ago, the pearl lupine or Andean lupine, Lupinus mutablilis was cultivated in the Andes.  As the only South American legume that grew at high elevations was an important part of adding nitrogen to the soil and providing protein and oil to the diet of mountain people, up through the Incan Empire. Like the white lupine, the seeds of pearl lupine were rinsed in running water for days and then boiled before they were eaten. European conquest radically changed the diet of Andean peoples, and pearl lupines are one of several of their traditional crops that were nearly lost but have been revived recently.  

Four species of lupines are in commercial production today, three Eurasian, varieties of white lupine (Lupinus albus), blue or narrowleaf lupine (L. angustifolius), and yelllow lupine (L. luteus) and one from the Americas, pearl lupine (L. mutalibilis). Uses include to being grown to add nitrogen to soils, using the foliage as animal fodder, and harvesting the seeds to make high-protein meal for animal feed and to enhance flour, or extract the oil, which is been used in cosmetics. None of these commands a very big market.

A few lupines have become invasive, for example in New Zealand, but in the United States, most lupines grow as noninvasive native wildflowers. The USDA website lists 154 species of lupine native in the United States, many found only in a single state (link look at maps by species). They are handsome plants, watch for them:

lupines in California
lupines, Point Reyes, California

lupine, Wyoming
lupine, Caribou-Targhee National Forest, Wyoming

lupines in Colorado
lupine, Colorado Rocky Mountains

Or plant them

lupine in Brig, Switzerland
lupine in garden in Brig, Switzerland

 Comments and corrections welcome.

Grieve, M. 1934. A Modern Herbal. Dover Publications, New York. Online: link
Growing Edible Lupins. Garden Organic link Accessed 10/1/2020.
Hill, G. D. 1995. Lupins. pp. 277-282. in J. Smartt and N. W. Simmonds, Evolution of Crop Plants. 2nd edition. Longman Press, London.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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