Lupine — Friend or Foe?

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Lupine at home in a field of poppies

Lupine at home in a field of poppies

The Backstory                                                                                                                               Some couples just look good together.  So it is with golden California poppies and purple lupines.  Poppies and lupines constitute a classic wildflower combination for gardeners as well as for artists!                                                                                                        In fact, the colors of the University of California, blue and gold, were chosen because the fields around the first campus (in 1868) reportedly were replete with blue lupines and golden poppies.  (A few years ago, a hillside in north Livermore was also covered with lupines.  It was a glorious site!  Now it is covered by a parking lot, albeit with solar collectors above.  I guess this is one form of progress.)                                                           Last year, a single purple lupine (Lupinus succulentus) found its way into the woodland section of the Granada Native Garden.  This year, its progeny are spreading themselves around among the poppies (lupines may do better when they self-seed than when we try to help them).  Hopefully this display of color will become a regular annual attraction at the Granada Native Garden.                                                                        Golden lupine                 Lupine (also spelled lupin) comes in other colors besides blue and purple, such as yellow and shades of red or pink.  Lupine is also frequently planted along road cuts; this Spring there was a good show of yellow lupine along the widening and re-alignment of Rt. 84/Vallecitos Rd.

A Case of False Incrimination                                                     Lupine cluster             Lupines are strikingly pretty Spring flowers.  Aside from that, the name “lupine”  comes from the Latin “lupus”, which means “wolf”, because lupines grow in deficient, low-nutrient soil, and they were (incorrectly) blamed for the low quality of the soil!                                        In addition, the interesting shape of the leaves (several slender leaflets radiating outward from a central point, aka “palmately compound”), and covered with soft hairs in some species, might have reminded some people of a wolf’s paw.  (But this is just my theory.)           Actually, lupines are legumes (members of the pea family), and like most of the members of that family, their roots have nodules that contain a very special bacterium, Lupine nodulesRhizobium (as in the photo on the right).  These bacteria are able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrate, a form that can be absorbed and used by the plant.  For that reason, legumes are commonly planted as a “green manure” crop in order to renew the nitrogen content of the soil in a garden.  (This is done by planting the lupine in the desired location, then digging it in or plowing it under while it is still green or after flowering.)  So rather than depleting the soil, lupines actually restore it, especially for growing crops that have a high nitrogen requirement, such as cucumbers, squash, broccoli and spinach.                                                                                                             Some species of lupines are named bluebonnet, because the shape of the flower petals is said to resemble the bonnet worn by pioneer women to shield them from the sun. 

Edible or Not Edible?                                                                                                         Like other legumes such as peas, beans, peanuts and soybeans, lupine seeds are a good source of protein, containing all of the essential amino acids required for complete nutrition.                                                                                                                                However there are  more than 100 species of lupine identified in California, and they vary in terms of their suitability for food.  The seeds of some lupine varieties contain toxic alkaloids and isoflavones which can be dangerous to livestock, especially sheep.  And like peanuts, lupine seeds may cause an allergic reaction to those who are allergic to peanuts.  The juice in the leaves and stems may be a notable skin irritant.                                            In spite of this, lupines constituted a significant part of the Native American diet.Lupine, fruits  The toxic components were removed from the leaves and seeds by boiling, as was the practice with many other plants that contain toxins.  Quail are especially fond of the seeds, and lupines are an important larval food for some local endangered butterflies, such as the Mission blue and Lange’s metalmark.                                          Notice in the photo at the left that the flower of the lupine becomes fruits that resemble pea pods, typical of plants that are in the pea family (Fabaceae).  (You can enlarge the photo by clicking on it.)

PostScript                                                                                                                            The showy display of color we usually expect at the beginning of Spring – the blue and purple and white California lilacs, the magenta redbud (also a member of the Faba- ceae), and the yellow flannelbush – seems to have been short-lived this Spring.  My guess is that the relatively dry Spring we have had is responsible.  And the lupines too!  Maybe this is going to be the new normal.

Quote du Jour                                                                                                                               “I wish I could awaken through some magic of the written word a desire for wildlife conservation among those who care not about it.”                                                               Raymond F. Dasmann, The Destruction of California, 1966

Granada Native Garden, 801 Murrieta Blvd., Livermore, CA  94550                   

Plant Communities of the Granada Native Garden

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Current Attractions                                                                                                                      It’s definitely Spring when the manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) and the western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) are in bloom!  Together, they make a lovely couple.  Both are genuine California native plants and would look good in any front yard.  Or back yard.  (Full disclosure:  Manzanita and redbud are current inhabitants of the Garden, but the above specimens are in my front yard and were photographed in mid-March, 2013.)                       At this time of the year, the bright yellow golden currant, the lavender-hued purple sage, and the deep blue ‘Dark Star’ California lilac are also inviting visitors with cameras!

Plant Communities
          A plant community is a population of different plant species which grow together where they share the same environmental needs:  climate, soil type, soil depth and exposure to sun or shade.                                                                                                        Because California has such a wide variety of these conditions, it is said that California has more  plant communities than most other locations in the world — at least 30 different plant communities and sub-communities.                                                           The Granada Native Garden is guilty of presuming that four of these communities can be  crammed into this 1/3-acre site.  And the boundaries of these communities would certainly not be as clearly defined as our map of the Garden suggests.  However, this is a demonstration garden, so we hope that you will forgive us if we attempt the unlikely!

Oak Woodland                               Aesculus            In this community you may find several types of oaks, mainly the valley oak, coast live oak, blue oak and interior live oak.  Other trees include the sycamore and buckeye (shown at the left, in flower last May).  Associated with these trees are understory plants such as manzanita, coffeeberry, currant, gooseberry, redbud and toyon, as well as wildflowers such as poppies, lupine and goldfields.                               The oaks are especially important members of this community, because of their unique double root system.  Deep roots pull up water from the water table and share it with their companion plants.  Shallow roots serve the nutritional needs of the trees by absorb- ing nutrients from decomposing forest floor litter.                                                                             The oak woodland community may be of the foothill type or the riparian type.  The foothill woodland community (now termed central oak woodland) formerly occupied a number of valleys in California as well as the foothills, but the flat land was easier to clear for farming and the trees were easier to harvest; the hills, not so much.  The riparian wood- land community lines many of the creeks and rivers of the Central Valley, and tends to exist where it was inconvenient for both humans and cattle to tread.  In  either case, many of these native trees require a source of water within 70 feet, and if their roots are able to achieve that depth, they thrive.  At the Granada Native Garden, the valley oaks, sycamores and buckeyes seem to be doing alright, but a cottonwood didn’t make it; we have replaced it with a “baby” box elder.

Redbud, in bloom

Riparian                                                                               “Riparian” means “living on the bank of a river or stream”.  In some cases, water might pool up in low lying areas for up to 3 months in late winter or spring, but if some plant likes it there, it thrives.  Sycamores and black walnuts are especially domi- nant in the Livermore area, but cottonwoods, redbud, willows and maples are also common.   Before 1850, riparian woodland covered 900,000 acres in the Central Valley; now only about one tenth of that remains.                                                                     At the Granada Native Garden, the woodland and riparian communities are adjacent to one another.  Ironically, a creekbed (see the map) simulates a water source that one would expect to find flowing thru a riparian community during at least part of the year.  But in reality, the only water we expect to find there is that which collects at its lowest point during periods of heavy rainfall.

Grassland                                                                                                                            At the Granada Native Garden, grassland occupies a long strip down the center of June grassthe Garden.  In California, grassland is thought to have originally covered much of the Central Valley and served as a major marshland for waterfowl.  But by the middle of the 19th century it had been almost completely drained and plowed, and many of the native perennial grasses had been replaced by nonnative annual grasses and covered over by agriculture and development.          Purple needlegrass (the California State grass), deergrass and June grass (shown at the left) are the most prominent members of the Granada Native Garden grassland, but other less conspicuous grasses punctuate the community.  Many of these are often used to replace the typical residential lawns and landscapes, as well as rushes and sedges, giving them a more Californian (and more interesting) personality.  Numerous wildflowers added a colorful display in the spring and early summer.  These provide a vast food reservoir for insects, native bees, butterflies, beetles and flies.  According to one Native American elder, butterflies were so abundant in the grassland that “they would come in clouds and you could reach out and touch them.  Sometimes they would land on you.”

Chaparral                                                                                                                                      A long berm along the eastern border of the Granada Native Garden is dedicated toChaparral Trio the chaparral community, a unique habitat populated by woody shrubs and evergreens that are highly adapt- ed to fire.  At this Garden, the species originally planted there are flannel- bush, California lilacsagebrush (the trio shown at the right), sage, buckwheat, bush poppy and yucca; more recent arrivals are chamise, matilija poppy and  nightshade.                                         In the past, wildfires were common but infrequent in the California landscape (probably once every 30-150 years), and it is thought that chaparral species have evolved a number of mechanisms to enable them to survive exposure to fire, such as delaying seed germination until the first spring after a fire.  Although fires, whether occurring naturally or intentionally set by humans, actually have many beneficial effects on the environment, fires now occur more frequently because of the increased presence of humans, and ecologists have some concern about the ability of chaparral plants to tolerate the effects of more frequent fires.

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