Description & Overview

Something is awe-inspiring about a swath of lupine, particularly Wild Blue Lupine, with its intense color, incredible fragrance, and tropical-looking leaves. Spikes laden with sweetly-scented blue-violet flowers tower above dark green foliage that collects glistening beads of dew in the morning. Its inherent beauty, combined with its ecological benefits and ease of growth, make Wild Blue Lupine a must-have in the landscape.

Wild Blue Lupine may also be known as Native Lupine, Blue Lupine, Sundial Plant, or Old Maid’s Bonnet.

Core Characteristics

Category: Perennial

Wisconsin Native: Yes

USDA Hardiness Zone: to zone 3

Mature Height: 12-24 inches

Mature Spread: 10-18 inches

Growth Rate: Slow

Growth Form: Clumping - forming

Light Requirements: Full Sun to Partial Shade

Site Requirements: Slightly acidic, sandy, or loamy well - drained soil is preferred but it will tolerate clay provided it has time to dry out before watering again.

Flower: Light green to red - purple flowering stalks with individual fragrant, blue - violet flowers. Flowers can also be white, purple, or pink but are most often blue or bluish - purple.

Bloom Period: May, June

Foliage: Alternate compound leaves. Individual leaves are palmate with 7 - 11 leaflets

Fall Color: N/A

Urban Approved: No

Fruit Notes: Elongated, fuzzy green seedpods containing 2 to 7 seeds. At maturity, the seedpod will turn brown - black.

Suggested Uses

Lupinus is an enormous genus consisting of more than 500 species of flowering plants in the Fabaceae (pea) family, with many native to North America, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Australasia. In the United States, there are more than 70 species dispersed across the country from Texas to Maine.

Hybrid varieties have been favored for their varied colors, but the native species are getting their due recognition. Lupinus perennis is considered by Alan Armitage to be “the best lupine by far for most gardeners” and is native to Wisconsin-how cool is that! Easier to establish and hardier than most other varieties, Wild Blue Lupine was once abundant in sandy prairies, dry woodlands, savannas, and dunes and is most at home in slightly acidic, sandy, well-drained soil planted in full sun. While it can tolerate clay soil it does not do well in standing water or wet soil.

Wild Blue Lupine is majestic when planted in masses and can be the main show all on its own. They make great backdrops to shorter perennials or when intermingled amongst later blooming plants. After flowering, Lupine may seem to “disappear” or die back-they aren’t dead! Dormancy is common, but they reseed easily and oftentimes new seedlings will appear the following year. When planted alongside other plants with staggered bloom times, their absence will hardly be noticed.

Once believed to be nutrient hogs-see Leaf Lore-Wild Blue Lupine, like others in the Fabaceae family, fixes nitrogen in the soil, giving back more than it takes. Working alongside a beneficial bacteria called Rhizobium, nitrogen is drawn from the air and converted into nitrogen gas which is stored in the roots of the plant. A nitrogen nodule forms on the roots and when the plant dies, decomposition releases the stored nitrogen back into the soil, naturally fertilizing the next round of plants.

Aldo Leopold, considered the father of wildlife ecology, wrote about Wild Blue Lupine in his famous book “A Sand County Almanac: Sketches Here and There.” While written somewhat ‘tongue in cheek’ he was onto something and the message is clear: plant more Wild Blue Lupine. “Sometimes in June, when I see unearned dividends of dew hung on every lupine, I have doubts about the real poverty of the sands. On solvent farmlands lupines do not even grow, much less collect a daily rainbow of jewels. If they did, the weed-control officer, who seldom sees a dewy dawn, would doubtless insist that they be cut. Do economists know about lupines?”

Something is awe-inspiring about a swath of lupine, particularly Wild Blue Lupine, with its intense color, incredible fragrance, and tropical-looking …
Something is awe-inspiring about a swath of lupine, particularly Wild Blue Lupine, with its intense color, incredible fragrance, and tropical-looking …

Wildlife Value

Wild Blue Lupine flowers do not produce nectar-only pollen. Fear not-it is an excellent source of pollen for bees and an extremely valuable larval host plant for several butterflies, including several that are considered endangered and/or threatened. Wild Blue Lupine is a special plant, with the ability to help many pollinators.

The Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa) is a federally endangered species, once prolific from western Wisconsin to the Atlantic seaboard. The habitat of the Karner Blue is very specific and with the widespread destruction of its environment, only small pockets can be found in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, New Hampshire, and New York. These small populations combined with the dwindling numbers of remaining Karner Blue butterflies put these blue beauties at high risk of extinction. Because Karner Blue caterpillars can only feed on the leaves of Wild Blue Lupine, their reproductive success is completely dependent on the plant. Plant more Wild Blue Lupine! Sometime in spring (varies by location), the first group of caterpillars hatch from eggs laid the previous year, feeding on the leaves of the Wild Blue Lupine. Once the caterpillars pupate and adults emerge, they lay their eggs in June-ish, on or nearby stands of lupine. These eggs hatch, caterpillars feed, pupate, and the second generation of adults emerges in July. It’s this second generation that lays the eggs that will not hatch until the following year.

And just when you thought Wild Blue Lupine couldn’t be any more amazing, it’s also a larval host plant to the Persius Dusky Wing (Erynnis persius), a Wisconsin State Special Concern butterfly, and the Frosted Elfin (Callophyrus irus), listed as Threatened in Wisconsin. Additionally, Wild Blue Lupine is a larval host to the Wild Indigo Duskywing (Erynnis baptisiae), the Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme), the Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice), and the Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui). More reasons to include this gorgeous perennial in your landscape!

Let’s not forget the bees! Rich with pollen, medium-sized bees such as mining, mason, and bumble bees pry open the lower flower petals (the keel) ejecting pollen which then gets brushed onto their legs. Small carpenter and sweat bees, as well as syrphid flies, don’t have the size or muscle to pry open the flowers but collect stray pollen from flowers that have already been opened. Interestingly, once a bee has visited the flower, its petals will change color-a visual cue to other bees to move onto an unvisited flower.

Other ecological benefits: Deer and rabbits will browse the foliage while seeds are a source of nutrition for birds and small mammals.

Maintenance Tips

Lupinus perennis is easy to grow provided it’s planted in the right location. As mentioned previously, they do not like wet feet and can suffer from root rot if the soil is not well drained or is overwatered. That said, in high heat and dry weather, they do prefer regular weekly watering. Balance is the key-not too wet but not bone dry either.

For the best flowering, at least six hours of direct sun is needed. Afternoon shade is great but too much shade will cause leggy plants and poor flowering.

Fertilization is not necessary and can cause foliage to grow like crazy but reduce flowering.

Pruning isn’t necessary and should be avoided, especially if you are growing Wild Blue Lupine to help the Karner Blue butterfly as their eggs overwinter on the plant’s leaves.

Wild Blue Lupine will reseed in well-drained sites, and you may find new plants popping up quite a ways from where they were first planted. This is part of the reason why they make such great plants for areas in which spread is desired. Keep this in mind and expect a bit of maintenance if you don’t want them in certain areas. They do not transplant well due to their long and deep taproot.

Lupinus perennis has been known to hybridize with other garden-variety, non-native lupines that have west-coast genetics (Lupinus polyphyllus). There is concern about preserving the genetics of Lupinus perennis because of this issue. We recommend planting the native variety on its own whenever possible to help with this issue.

Something is awe-inspiring about a swath of lupine, particularly Wild Blue Lupine, with its intense color, incredible fragrance, and tropical-looking …
Something is awe-inspiring about a swath of lupine, particularly Wild Blue Lupine, with its intense color, incredible fragrance, and tropical-looking …

Pests/Problems

Black Walnut Tolerant: No
Deer Resistant: No
Rabbit Resistant: No

Relatively free from any major pests or diseases, the biggest threat is improper siting and root rot. As mentioned previously, well-drained soil in full sun is the best location.

Like other lupines, Wild Blue Lupine can be susceptible to aphids in the spring-blast them off with water and all will be well. Powdery mildew can appear if air circulation is poor-space accordingly and thin occasionally if needed.

Leaf Lore

The genus name “Lupinus” comes from the Latin “lupus” for “wolf.” It was once thought to rob or “wolf” the soil of nutrients. This couldn’t be further from the truth as it fixes nitrogen and improves soil!

The species name “perennis” means ‘perennial’ differentiating this species from other annual or biennial Lupines.

One of its common names, “Sundial plant” refers to the ability of its leaflets to rotate up to 90 degrees to catch the sun, known as heliotropism.

The Cherokee used parts of Wild Lupine to prevent vomiting and hemorrhaging. The Menominee used it as a veterinary aid to help horses gain weight. The Menominee believed that rubbing the plant on one’s hands or body would give a person the ability to control horses.

Companion Plants

For an interesting mix of textures, height, and color, consider planting Wild Blue Lupine alongside Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum), Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Prairie Phlox (Phlox pilosa), Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virniniana), Hairy Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis), Leadplant (Amorpha canescens), Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium), and Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida).

Something is awe-inspiring about a swath of lupine, particularly Wild Blue Lupine, with its intense color, incredible fragrance, and tropical-looking …
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Written by Johnson's Nursery