Sandy’s Garden ... The Arctic Lupin

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Everyone will be familiar with the tall flowering spikes of the lupin, or lupine, to give it its alternative and etymologically more correct spelling.

The brief introduction to the plant given in Wikipedia tells the reader a lot about this common plant. “Lupinus, commonly known as lupin or lupine (North America), is a genus of flowering plants in the legume family (Fabaceae). The genus comprises about 280 species (Hughes), with major centres of diversity in South and Western North America, parts of the Southern Hemisphere (New Zealand and parts of Australia) and the Andes and secondary centres in the Mediterranean region and Africa.” Expressed in the simplest of terms, this reports that the lupin is found pretty much around the world, with subtly different variants occurring in different continents. The lupin is, of course, found throughout the United Kingdom, although I personally regret that it is seldom possible to see lupins flowering on railway embankments and on the sides of railway cuttings, as was the case when I was a boy. Oh, aye, things were different when I were a lad … but I won’t ramble on about how one could go to the pictures on a Saturday night, have chips afterwards and still have change for the bus fare home from half-a-crown; I shall save these musings for another occasion.

Recently, my wife and I enjoyed a cruise from Reykjavik round Iceland, to the Faroe Islands, the Shetlands, across to Norway and down the west coast of that country to Oslo, thence into and round the Baltic Sea, ending in Stockholm … fantastic! But I have to admit that I was astonished at the proliferation of wild lupins in Iceland, lupins of a sub-species called the Arctic lupin. Apparently, lupins were introduced into Iceland in a well-intentioned bid to reduce soil erosion caused by the high winds which commonly sweep across the land, for the lupin is a tenacious plant which readily forms into close-knit colonies whose foliage denies the wind access to the underlying soil. But, like many a non-native plant introduced into a strange environment, the lupin found Iceland very much to its liking and has become an invasive species which not only denies the wind access to the soil but also suffocates the small native plants that clung to life there before the lupin arrived.

In this regard, the lupin is doing no more than living up to its name, for the preferred American spelling … lupine …comes more obviously from the Latin word lupinus, meaning ‘a wolf’, with the adjectival form ‘lupine’ meaning ‘wolf-like’; and the plant was given that botanical name precisely because it has a tendency to ravage the land on which it grows, killing off native plants. One might add that the lupin’s love of living in a close-knit colony also mimics the wolf’s lifestyle, as does its ability to thrive in a harsh environment and the fact that it has few natural enemies in the Arctic, where there are none of the viruses, slugs and mildew which are problems for the plant in a Scottish garden.

The Arctic lupin is usually blue … its most usual colour in the wild in the United Kingdom … although the blue sometimes features attractive hints of white or pink. One might well expect such a showy plant to attract the grazing sheep which are more numerous in Iceland than are Icelanders. Surely a hungry sheep in search of some dietary variation from the grass which is its everyday (rather boring) diet would home in on this apparent bounty? But the plant has a nasty trick up its metaphorical sleeve, for it is poisonous if it is eaten and the sheep have learned to leave it very much alone. So the plant whose disappearance from the sides of railway lines here is a cause of regret to me is the self-same plant whose proliferation in Iceland is not greeted with universal acclaim by the locals. Such is life!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society