Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
Beyond Bluebonnets by Lisa Halvorsen - Spring 2004
When Miss Rumphius was a little girl, she told her grandfather that when she grew up, she wanted to travel to faraway lands, then come home and live in a house by the sea, just as he had done. But her grandfather said that there was one more thing that she had to do, and that was to do something to make the world more beautiful.
When she got older she visited tropical islands, climbed mountain peaks, and trekked by camel through the desert. She then returned home and bought a house by the ocean. And there, after discovering that the lupines she had planted in her garden had spread to the other side of the hill, she knew just what to do to make the world more beautiful. She would buy bushels of lupine seeds to scatter everywhere she went, and so she did. The next year the fields, hillsides, and roadsides were covered with beautiful blue, purple, and rose-colored lupines.
Although Miss Rumphius is only a children's storybook character created by author-illustrator Barbara Cooney, the widespread distribution of lupines in the United States and on many continents in the world makes it seem almost possible that someone did have a hand in spreading lupine seeds everywhere. Today there are more than 200 known species in the genus, found primarily in the Mediterranean, North Africa, tropical and western South America, Central America, Canada, and the United States, especially in the western states. Around 75 species grow in the wild in this country, with only one native species - the wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) - found in the Northeast.
According to Mariélle Anzelone, a plant ecologist with the Natural Resources Group of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, this particular species is even found in New York City, although only on Staten Island.
"The wild blue lupine is uncommon in New York City largely because its habitat is uncommon," Anzelone says, noting that the species is found in dry, open woods and sunny open areas in sandy soils. "Open, nutrient-poor areas are often lost due to succession. Landscapes, which used to provide varied habitat types, have been built on. Now such open areas need to be managed to remain in existence."
The lupine derives its name from the Latin word for wolf, lupus. It was so named because of its ability to survive, and even thrive, in poor soils, which led to the widespread belief that the plant was robbing or "wolfing" the soil of nutrients. The opposite is actually true. Lupines, a member of the Fabaceae (pea) family, can grow in nutrient-deficient soils because of a symbiotic relationship between the nitrogen-fixing bacteria (Rhizobium) and the lupine roots. They don't steal from the soil but rather change atmospheric nitrogen to a useable form and return it to the soil, thus adding fertility. These hardy plants commonly grow in meadows, alpine areas, or where soil has been disturbed, such as highway corridors.