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Few amateur gardeners have created the sort of sensation achieved by one elderly George Russell when, in 1937 he brought 25 years of work to the infamous RHS Westminster Show in Vincent Square. But this is exactly what happened when Russell (whose name is notoriously linked with Lupins in a way few other plants are so commonly known) put on a display of his new hybrids in big copper bowls, the like of which nothing had been seen before.
Astonishingly by the time Russell showed in London, he was already the ripe old age of 80! His lupins showed the characteristics now so sought after by keen breeders - the straight backed stem, the fully opened standards, the rounded bells and the new breaks of colour. Russell is entirely attributed with the breeding of the bicolour range naming his particular favourite a pink and white after himself.
But how did he, a gardener for his employer during the day, make such changes to an insignificant herbaceous perennial originally brought over from North America by David Douglas some 100 years earlier. With a dedication often found in the over enthusiastic gardening fraternity, Russell grew thousands of lupins on his Yorkshire allotment, spending every spare moment lovingly caring for them. More importantly, he was ruthless in his selection process, rogueing out any plants not coming up to muster, any blues (too close to the original polyphyllus strain) and any annuals (too close to the hartwegii strain) - a case of survival of the fittest.
Russell wrote no notes, did not approve of hand pollinating (the bumble bees were allowed full responsibility for the job of cross-pollination), took no cuttings and wouldn't go out in the rain. No one was allowed to buy his precious plants despite lucrative offers but his reward was adulation from his public, an MBE and the Royal Horticultural Society awarded him the Veitch Medal for a lifetime's achievement in horticulture
Growing lupins must be good for your health - George Russell started breeding them during his 50's and lived on to the ripe old age of 96 after storming onto the horticultural scene in 1937 at the RHS Show Westminster. If the exotic beauty of these magnificent plants has not yet captured you, I urge you to take a chance and have a go - even if it is just a packet of seed. Each seedling will be unique in colour, form and habit and you can call it what you like because no one else will have it!
Yet despite all his efforts, the lupins on the market today bear little resemblance to those bred by Russell. Out of a genus of 200 species of hardy perennials and half hardy annuals few are grown today. Of those that are, they resemble a feather duster rather than the exotic plumes of a true Russell specimen. Without the constant renewal of good varieties through taking cuttings the mother plants disappear having dropped seedlings of all types of genetic disposition around her. The strongest (often the blues) and unfortunately the gappiest usually claim their parent's pitch which should answer the frequent query about lupins mysteriously 'reversing' or changing colour. They don't'; their offspring take over.
Astonishingly, lupin seed has been used as a form of protein as long ago as the Roman times. The newer garden hybrids of today are highly poisonous because they are full of toxic alkaloids and should never be eaten but the Romans ate the roasted seeds of sweet white lupins (Lupinus albus) and made them into coffee. More recently Chile produces sweet white lupin flour used as a base in soups, stews and milk shakes in school meals whilst in the USA spaghetti is made from the same flour base. With the close of the first world war, German officials held a lupin feast with invitations printed on paper made of lupins and a table cloth of lupin. Delicacies such as lupin soup, lupin cutlets, lupin cheese and even lupin coffee were served and I promise this is not a sketch from monty python!
All our lupins make a statement with a capital S in borders, their spires giving focus and early colour between the late tulips, paeonies, poppies and alliums. Instantly recognisable, many people remember lupins from childhood in their parents or grannies garden. Elton John asked Rosemary Verey to design a rainbow border with delphiniums, hollyhocks, paeonies and of course lupins, all flowers he remembers from his boyhood. Many of our customers comment on the scent which they remember with a sense of nostalgia.
It has been fascinating to hear from lupinophiles who have first hand experience of Russell's original plants including a gentleman who was general manager for Bakers of Codsalls, Wolverhamton. It was James Baker who eventually persuaded Russell that he was being selfish not to allow his lupins to be sold and having secured Russell's stock, in their hey-day, Bakers attracted 80,000 visitors in June to see 40 acres of lupins in flower.
Buy from a good source, keep hoeing to keep the moisture in the soil, spray at the first sign of any insect attack and feed a little bonemeal or seaweed before and during the growing season. You will be rewarded with great spires in every colour, the humming of bumble bees during the glorious summer days as they go about their relentless quest for nectar, and flowers which look great in the borders, fantastic in a vase. Their perfume is distinct, filling the air with a heady peppery, mossy scent and very much more noticeable indoors. Strip the foliage and side shoots first or the florets will drop. Plunge into water and enjoy a big, colourful display for a good week.
The latin name for lupin, Lupinus, is derived from lupus meaning wolf or destroyer. Because lupins will grow in poor soil they have also attracted the misleading idea that they can destroy the fertility of the soil. This is not true; lupins make their own nitrogen enabling them to grow in poorer soils but not chalk. Ideally a well drained, neutral to slightly acidic soil will ensure 100% success but most soils will be fine.
Pretty much any climate will be tolerated by lupins. They are very hardy herbaceous perennials, withstanding frost to at least -25C. In very wet conditions, lupins may succumb to crown rot but if well established, will survive most conditions.
Just like us lupins love the sun and their flower spikes will follow its movement east to west on a bright day. However, we have lupins growing on a north facing site which thrive just as happily. Full sun is said to improve the colour of the flower spikes too.
Because lupins flower primarily in the month of flaming June they coincide with a popular time for couples tying the knot. If you want to be original take some beautiful lupin florets as confetti, strip the blooms just before you set off. As a statement plant in the border, few plants can match the tall, colourful lupin spire. They make excellent pot plants too which is not an idea usually associated with this genus. Put one or two on your patio and enjoy a heavenly morning and evening scent reminiscent of peppery moss.