Lupine is a genus of plants in the pea family. They are characterized by long spires of beautiful blooms and by their foliage, in which bunches of pointed leaves grow out from the end of the stem resembling the claw of a wolf. This similarity is what led the Romans to name them Lupines (wolf-like). Back in Roman times, lupine beans were eaten as we eat peas today, and were an important food source as they have a large amount of amino acids and vitamins. These days it is difficult to find lupine beans (often sold as lupini or lupin beans) due to their small size and bitter taste, however some places in Europe still sell and serve them.
There are many types of lupine you may find near you! From the shrub-like Lupinus albifrons, also known as silver bush lupine, to the Lupinus bicolor which grows as a small creeping groundcover. In other places lupines grow in even more varied form, including a lupine called Lupinus jaimehintoniana (chamis de monte) which lives in Mexico and grows into a tree up to 25 feet tall!
Many native Lupines in California have green to silver leaves and blue or blue and white spires of flowers that can grow up to 2 feet long depending on the species. Bluebonnets are a common name for blue-flowering lupines. Bluebonnets are the state flower of Texas, and therefore actually encompass many lupine species. Within California, rarer and more spectacular varieties can be found, some have dark purple leaves, and pink, purple, white, and yellow flowers are all present on native species.
Lupines are a favorite of insects, and many butterflies spend their larval stages on the leaves of their favorite lupine. Most notably, the endangered mission blue butterfly whose larvae are exclusively found on members of the lupinus genus. Others, such as the moth Schinia sueta, are perhaps less charismatic and beautiful but nonetheless are important for the ecosystem and depend on lupines as larvae. Other endangered species, such as the persius duskywing, and the karner blue, use the lupine for larvae, although not exclusively. And as the last insect of interest discussed here, the Xerces Blue also depends on its coastal sand adapted lupines for survival, and when urban sprawl on the San Francisco peninsula destroyed too many of these lupine dunes, the Xerces Blue went extinct.
These plants are important to preserve for the beauty they themselves possess, for the beauty of the things that depend on them, and for the overall health of the ecosystem we love so much.
Photo credits: Las Pilitas nursery; Walter Siegmund; Magnus Manske; Patrick Kobernus