How to grow lupins

Val Bourne

Lupins provide candles of flower in May, when there's a dearth, and their peppery scent seems to lure in bumble bees

The tapering lupin spires come in every colour and they provide a unique vertical in the herbaceous border - which is still mostly full of leaf. I welcome them almost as much as the bumble bees that they attract.

Read how to design a traditional cottage garden.

Tips for growing lupins

Plant lupins when young - so that they can put down a good root system - in an open position away from trees.

Lupins are not great fans of chalk. However I have managed to grow plants in the limestone soil of the Cotswolds and they flower well.

Lupins prefer well-drained soil which isn’t too rich.

Lupins do not take too kindly to being chopped back hard after flowering - they take months to recover.

If you have a good plant, don’t let it produce lots of seeds. Keep the vigour in the parent plant and deadhead as the flowers fade. Never divide in autumn.

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Propagating lupins

You can take basal cuttings in March and April and these will root easily in a 50% mixture of sharp sand and compost.

Plants can also be divided in the spring - but NEVER in the autumn. Autumn division will kill them. However, be aware that lupins have a tap root so division can be difficult to divide and it would be better to start a new plant from seed.

What to grow lupins with

Lupins are useful in the garden as they emerge and flower early, hiding daffodil foliage. Once they have finished they can look ragged, but hostas, delphiniums and peonies hide their foliage well. 

Read our guide to growing delphiniums.

Deep-blue lupins flatter darker peonies and apricot lupins look stunning used with blue hardy geraniums and campanulas. 

Read our guide to growing hardy geraniums.

Growing lupins from seed

Sow straight from the plant using a loam-based compost. Prick out into individual pots when seedlings have true leaves. Old seed can be pre-soaked for 24 hours.

Problems and diseases

Giant lupin aphids, which are specific to lupins, can spread viruses and debilitate the plant in early May. Moving the plant to a new site in spring is a good idea.

Slugs damage new shoots. 

Read our guide to controlling slugs and snails.

The modern hybrid lupin and George Russell

Yet the lupin as we know it would never have come about but for one man - George Russell. This retired gardener from York began breeding them at the age of 54, using two allotments, and finally staged his first exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show in 1938 aged 79. 

George Russell died at the grand old age of 94 in 1951 - having become a legend in his own lifetime. Every packet of Russell Lupin seed bore a picture of a twinkly-eyed old man in a grandad shirt - Russell himself - and this tradition carried on for many years.

What inspired George Russell to breed lupins?

Russell, who was a jobbing gardener, was inspired to start breeding lupins by a vase of rather weedy specimens arranged by Mrs Micklethwaite - one of his employers. When he saw them he was convinced he could do better and started a 20-year project to breed a new strain.

The problem with lupins

George Russell acquired as many species of lupins as he could from a wide range of sources. Some were annual and some were perennial so he constantly selected the best and hoped that they would prove to be perennial. He discarded any annuals.

Lupins are tap-rooted members of the pea family and therefore difficult to divide into many pieces. They are not long lived, they may last for seven or eight years. They make up for this by setting a lot of seeds. But the seedlings can be very variable - although with constant selection a strain can become quite stable.

Russell got round the problem by naming his best lupin plants and then taking cuttings from them. However his stock plants became less vigorous with time and many also went down with a virus. When he died the collection, which was now housed at Boningale’s Nursery near Wolverhampton, went into decline for many years.

The resurgence of the Russell strain

However one or two people kept his strain going from seed left at the nursery. Pat Edwards, who holds the National Collection of Russell Lupins, gardened close to Russell's home near Wolverhampton and she has carried on selecting using his original material. Johnny Walker, a former policeman, regularly cycled past George Russell's fields as a young man and marvelled at the plants' stature and perfection. He was also given seed and carried on selecting excellent plants.

When Johnny's lupins appeared on a television programme called Bloom (over ten years ago now) the lupins were deeply admired by a young head gardener called Sarah Conibear. She contacted Johnny and he generously gave her seeds of his selected colours. Sarah now runs Westcountry Lupins (part of West Country Nurseries) and this gave Westcountry Lupins a fantastic start. They now sell many excellent named forms.

Read our guide to dividing perennials.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.