Kate Flora: It’s lupine season in Maine, that time in June and early July when patches of purple and blue, and sometimes white and pink lupines explode in masses of color among the tall grass. At this season, the drive on 295 from Brunswick to Augusta can treat a traveler with hillsides of lupines so prolific they are breathtaking. On a sunny day, they’re as lovely as anything you’ll see all year. From time to time, as I am driving, I will see “lupine-nappers” out in the field digging them up, oblivious to the fact that they are stealing that beauty from the rest of us.
On the farm in Union where I grew up, wild lupines grew in the field across the street as well as in my father’s cultivated garden. Lupines were always there. I never thought much about them until I tried to grow some myself without success. My late mother, the garden writer A. Carman Clark, used to say that to get a lupine to grow, I should take one lupine, chop it up, and bury it where I wanted to plant. That would tell my planted lupine that it was in the right place.
Wikipedia tells us that “while some sources believe the origin of the name to be in doubt, the Collins Dictionary definition asserts that the word is 14th century in origin, from the Latin lupīnus, “wolfish”, as it was believed that the plant ravenously exhausted the soil.” In fact, lupines are members of the pea family and can actually improve the soil.
Despite growing up with lupines and now have a few successfully growing in my perennial bed, I did not know that lupines have historically been used as food. But it turns out that, (Wikipedia again) Seeds of various species of lupines have been used as a food for over 3000 years around the Mediterranean and for as long as 6000 years in the Andes. Lupines were also used by many Native American peoples such as the Yavapai in North America. The Andean lupine was a widespread food in the Incan Empire. Lupines can be used to make a variety of foods both sweet and savory, including everyday meals, traditional fermented foods, baked foods, and sauces. While originally cultivated as a green manure or forage, lupines are increasingly grown for their seeds, which can be used as an alternative to soybeans.
Most children growing up in Maine, as well as visitors to the state, are familiar with the book, Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. We didn’t have it as children, it wasn’t around in the 1950’s, but the award-winning book with its wonderful illustrations has become a Maine classic. The book includes an important piece of advice: do something to make the world more beautiful. At this season, the lupine lady’s plants or their great, great, great, great grandchildren, are doing just that. If you haven’t read it, or are feeling nostalgic, you can have the story read to you here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxh8ZPU_HfY
There really was a “Miss Rumphius,” though her name was Hilda Edwards Hamlin, an Englishwoman who summered in Christmas Cove. Hilda Hamlin loved lupines and introduced them to Maine, tossing the seeds around wherever she went. You can read her story here: https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/how-real-miss-rumphius-decorated-maine-lupines/