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Here Come Those Lupines! Spring 2004
by Fred Davis, MG, Hill Gardens, Palermo (To view other articles, click


Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! Those wonderful and colorful roadside and meadow flowers are up ‘n running again! You know the ones: "Those colorful flowers blooming in spikes all up and down the road," referring, of course, to lupines—a perennial which has for decades decorated New England's rural areas. A question I hear frequently usually goes like this: "Can I move lupines from the side of the road or field into my garden?"

This is the time of year for "roadside-plantnappers" to look carefully from side to side, screech to a stop, wait for traffic to thin out, leap from their cars with a trowel and a cardboard box to try moving some of the best colors of lupines (and many other naturalized plants, as well) into their gardens at home.

Those gardeners, in particular, would do well to note and remember a number of important lessons. The first, as you might have expected me to say, is that taking flowering plants - that might have been enjoyed by all passersby - from public roadsides ultimately results in drab, dreary and colorless roadsides. Most important to consider are the property rights of the person from whose field, yard or driveway-borders plants are occasionally taken. Quite often a nearby resident has actually planted flowers on the sides of roads approaching their homes. What a nice idea! What a colorful and pleasant place to drive and enjoy!

A second hard-learned lesson: plants are where they are because they like it there. Naturalized lupines, for example, prefer deep, sandy soil with a little nutrition, full sun and minimal disturbance. Let's look closer at each one of those needs.

Need No. 1: Depth. Lupines are tap-rooted, penetrating up to three or more feet, straight down. Prying them out with a trowel - or even a spade - cuts off as much as 75- or 80-percent of that soil-anchor. How would you respond if someone jumped out of a car, took your legs off at mid-thigh (in the full-bloom prime of life) and then told you to run a marathon? Lupines and many other naturalized plants wouldn't like it either! Fact is, with a full load of flowers and drastically reduced roots, they have a tough time surviving that first year…if at all.

Needs No. 2 and 3: Sandy soil with little nutrition. How many roadside gardeners have deep, sandy soil? Not many, you can be sure. It's usually all clay or all rocks and ledge, poorly nourished and choked with weeds or a dense tangle of tree roots that wouldn't even grow good poison ivy.

Need No. 4: A sunny spot and minimal disturbance. Once again, they're where they are because they like it there...and they don't want to be jerked out of the ground, brutally root-pruned, tossed in a dry box or wrapped in a wad of Burger King napkins soaked in Pepsi, later to be replanted in heavy, wet and fertilized soil in the shade of some huge maple tree.

Additionally, such plants are almost never dug when they're dormant - the best time. The worst possible time to move many plants is when they're blooming, lupines included.

Finally, it is highly likely that, along with the dug-up plant, will come a variety of insects, weed seeds and diseases heretofore unknown in your garden. Who needs that?

Yes, you can have lupines in your garden. They've been hybridized with more brilliant colors and better tolerance of a wider range of soils. But they still prefer a deep (for their taproots), sandy (for optimum drainage) soil in the full sun and only a light spring application of fertilizer. And you'll no longer feel the need to carry a trowel and a cardboard box in the trunk of your car...or feel (and look) embarrassed whenever a car goes by to witness the questionable-deed. Besides, a jar or envelope for collecting a few seeds takes up far less space.

Let's leave plants like lupines, native orchids, lilies and ferns where they can be enjoyed by all who travel our country roads.

A few varieties to look for at the local nursery or garden center: Russell Hybrids - bold colors in densely-packed spikes which grow to about three-feet tall on sturdy stems. A shorter, early-flowering version of Russell hybrids are the Minarettes. Only 20-inches tall and in a full range of rich, strong colors. One last variety: Popsicle. Compact, early, about half the height of Russells, and in a nice range of colors on very thick, 10-inch spikes.

One final note: Lupines are aphid magnets! It is nearly a sure bet that yours will become infested with the fat little insects with a silvery-gray or green coloring. Aphids pierce plant cells, siphon juices and, in the process, may inject some awful virus which can turn your treasured lupine into a gnarled, twisted mess. Aphids must be attacked with speed and vigor. Immediate blasting with a stiff spray from your garden hose will knock off and mortally injure most of the critters. Follow up with a thorough dusting of Rotenone, Pyrethrum or coarse spray of Safer’s Soap—three relatively effective and safe insecticides. You'll find all three in the natural insecticides section at your local garden center or farm 'n garden shop.

By the way, if you're a "roadside plant-napper", I suggest you read: Garden Etiquette, a chapter in Fred's online book: Keys To The Garden Gate. Your complimentary copy is just sitting there waiting for you! 


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