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Lupinus polyphyllus (Large-leaved Lupine, Big-leaved Lupine, or, primarily in cultivation, Garden Lupin) is a species of lupine (lupin) native to western North America from southern Alaskamarker and British Columbiamarker east to Albertamarker and western Wyomingmarker, and south to Utahmarker and Californiamarker. It commonly grows along streams and creeks, preferring moist habitats.

It is a perennial herbaceous plant with stout stems growing to 1.5 m tall. The leaves are palmately compound with (5-) 9-17 leaflets 3-15 cm long. The flowers are produced on a tall spike, each flower 1-1.5 cm long, most commonly blue to purple in wild plants.

There are five varieties:
  • Lupinus polyphyllus var. burkei – Interior northwestern United States
  • Lupinus polyphyllus var. humicola – Interior western North America
  • Lupinus polyphyllus var. pallidipes – Western Oregon and Washington (Willamette Valley)
  • Lupinus polyphyllus var. polyphyllus – Coastal western North America
  • Lupinus polyphyllus var. prunophilus – Interior western North America

Cultivation and uses

Garden cultivars of Lupinus polyphyllus
It is commonly used in gardens for its flowers; numerous cultivars have been selected for differing flower color, including red, pink, white, blue, and multicolored with different colors on different petals. Often hybrids between L. polyphyllus and L. arboreus are used, and sold under the name Rainbow Lupin. They are very hardy and can easily become invasive and hard to get rid of.

Low alkaloidal or sweet cultivars of this lupin suitable for fodder crops have been bred. To avoid restoration of alkaloid synthesis in cross-pollinated species of lupin, a new approach has been developed on the basis of specific crossing. Only compatible forms are involved in hybridization, with their low alkaloid content controlled by one and the same genetic system. These approaches have allowed transforming this bitter weed into a valuable fodder crop. In the conditions of Northwest Russia positive results from the use of the sweet commercial cultivar 'Pervenec' (first sweet variety), which is included in the State Catalogue of selection achievements of Russia. Breeding of sweet lupin is carried out also in Finland.

Russell Hybrids

Close up of a Russell hybrid lupin in a typical garden setting, UK, England.

The herbaceous lupin, Lupinus polyphyllus, arrived in Britain from America in the 1820s, almost a century later George Russell, a 53 year old horticulturalist from UKmarker York started to breed the famous Russell hybrids. Lupinus polphyllus originally were of basic colours and had large gaps in the flowering spike, without the use of modern day plant breeding techniques he took to ruthlessly pulling out any plants which he deemed to be unacceptable in growth or display. He spent two decades single-mindedly trying to breed the perfect lupin, crossing L. polyphyllus with L. arboreus and one or more annual species. Over the decades the plants he selected to grow on developed flower spikes which were denser, larger and more colourful than the original Lupinus polyphyllus.

His work may have gone unrecognised if he wasn't pushed by another nurseryman called James Baker to show the plants to the public, its understood the pair worked together for several years to perfect the Russel Hybrid, before they were displayed at the Royal Horticultural Society's June show in 1937 – where their brightly coloured, tightly packed spires won awards.

The templates created by Russell are still used by other specialist lupin horticulturalist's today, Maurice and Brian Woodfield, nurserymen from Stratford-upon-Avonmarker, received the RHS Veitch Memorial Medal for their work on lupins in 2000. They've created more complex plants with more varied and vivid bi-coloured spikes, the red and yellow, and red and purple flowers are particular highlights of the 'Woodfield' lupin variety. . In 2009, Sarah Conibear who runs the Westcountry Nurseries, displayed several new varieties including the ‘Beefeater', about which the RHS writer Graham Rice commented [the beefeater] "has what looks to be the best red lupin we've seen so far."

Invasive species

Russell lupins alongside a road in Canterbury, New Zealand.
In New Zealandmarker, where it is known as the Russell lupin, Lupinus polyphyllus is classed as an adventive species and covers large areas next to roadsides, pastures and riverbeds, especially in the Canterbury regionmarker. It is documented as being first naturalised in 1958 and it has been suggested that tour bus drivers deliberately spread seeds of the plant to promote colourful roadside vegetation in areas which some tourists may consider to be rather drab.

The plant threatens indigenous species especially when it invades the braided river beds in the South Island.


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