The 1940s suburban Manchester garden of my childhood was full of lupins; the 2022 June Border of Crathes Castle is full of lupins. And all the gardens in between seem to have had at least some lupins.
There are no native lupins in Britain, but some species, which originate from North America, have been grown in British gardens for centuries and have naturalised quite readily in Scotland.* The tree lupin, Lupinus arboreus, is a favourite of mine. I once collected a few seeds from a dried up shrivelled plant growing on an abandoned railway near St Andrews and they germinated and thrived in my Moray coastal garden where their pale yellow abundance filled me with joy. I took their seeds to Torphins and enjoyed them there too for a while.
Lupinus polyphyllus is the original garden lupin found in creeks and damp places mostly in western America from South Alaska to California and eastwards to Quebec. It is one of the parents of the Russell Lupin – the other being the tree lupin – and is usually blue, but may be pink.
The Nootka lupin, Lupinus nootkatensis, is similar though often blue and white. I have seen it, or maybe a hybrid, growing on shingle islands in the Spey Estuary. I have also seen it or L. poylphyllus growing beside the Dee a mile or two north of Banchory. Because lupins were found in poor soil it was assumed that they depleted the soil and the plant was given the name lupin after Lupus lupus, the wolf – that eats all that comes its way. We now know that legumes – all the pea family – actually improve the soil with their nitrogen fixing root nodules.
In 1727 Alexander, 4th baronet of Leys, ordered ‘4 drope of yelow Lupin’ (a drop is 1/16th of a Scottish ounce = 1.921 grammes). This amount of seed is not enough to provide fodder or an improvement crop so maybe these were the first lupins to grace the Crathes flower garden.
Two hundred years later when the June Border was designed by Sybil, Lady Burnett, in 1937/8 (see Castle, cottage and fine design, 8 June 2020) the Russell Lupins were being newly exhibited to the world at the 1937 Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) annual show to great acclaim. A year later anyone could buy a packet of 12 seeds for a shilling – a penny a seed, easy to grow and giving a second show if deadheaded after flowering. But then came the war and ‘Dig for Victory’. The June Border was replanted with vegetables that helped to feed the convalescing soldiers who were rehabilitated at the castle. After 1945 colour crept back into our lives; I still have a brightly coloured jug that is all that is left from the tea set that replaced our wartime china. In the garden lupins were just what we needed.
I had assumed that the ‘Russell’ referred to Jim Russell of the well-known Sunningdale Nurseries in Surrey (though I now realise that the dates don’t tally). However, a book I recently picked up second-hand informed me differently.**
George Russell (1857-1951) made his living by doing odd gardening jobs and working in nurseries in and around York and Lincoln. He grew fruit and vegetables on his two allotments and experimented with breeding flowers. In his 50s he focussed on improving lupins. Probably largely self-educated, he knew about Mendel’s experiments with peas. He worked on his lupins for 23 years with the intention of breeding a flower spike that was so crowded with individual flowers that the central stem could not be seen. He was ruthless about destroying any plants that were below expectations. In 1934 the Baker Nursery bought the lupin collection and George continued to work with the breeding programme over in Wolverhampton. In 1937 the Baker Nursery exhibited the lupins at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The nursery was awarded a gold medal and George Russell was awarded the RHS Veitch Memorial Medal – a very high honour. All the passionate, painstaking, meticulous work was rewarded and Russell Lupins continue to give us pleasure in gardens throughout the country.
We don’t know the names of the all the lupins at Crathes, but can make a guess at some. James has recently bought some new plants: ‘Magic Lantern’ and ‘Manhattan Lights’, and it may be that ‘Manhattan Lights’ already grows there – as I think about this I realise that its growth does suggest a skyscraper at night. The new plants will spend a year bulking up in the nursery before being planted in their allotted place.
I will be growing lupins (maybe tree lupins) in my new garden. I know that they are especially favoured by bumblebees; the competing honey bees are not quite heavy enough to access the nectar easily and carry out effective pollination. The other plans I have for my new (small) garden are a mini meadow and a bug house. I experimented with meadows in my old garden and I follow the developing meadows at Crathes with great interest.
The pink campions and ox-eye daisies make a great show and as the year progresses the variety will increase. Yellow rattle, parasitic on grasses, is crucial for suppressing the more vigorous grasses. Whilst inspecting the meadows I noticed a solitary bee just coming out of one of the holes in the bug hotel by the wildlife garden. It withdrew into its hole as I bent down for a closer look. Every insect is a bonus these days when the planet is under attack from all sides – yes I know midges are a curse, but not to the swallows.
The Welcome building is making progress and I hear that the green roof has just been planted. Meantime the alternative gate to the garden opens to a grand show of meconopsis poppies.
The oyster catcher managed to hatch three chicks, but one by one the gardeners watched them lose the battle for survival. The chicks are precocious – meaning they leave the nest as soon as they hatch to reduce the chance of predation. The parents continue to ward off predators as best possible and there was a lot of noise around the Red Garden for some days. We all get very attached to these lovely characterful birds.
The Rose Garden is still waiting for the go ahead.
*New Flora of the British Isles by Clive Stace (1992)
** Who does your Garden Grow? by Alex Pankhurst (1992)