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Graphic:  What About Lupine?

Photo: Lupine in Bloom
Lupine blooms on slopes of hills and on the Columbia River Plain in April and May.

Graphic: Background Information...

What is lupine?
During late spring in the Columbia Basin you will see wide open sunny slopes colored with a blue-to-purple hue. The color comes from lupine a common shrub-steppe wildflower in full bloom. Lupine easily can be recognized by its tall, spike-like clusters of blossoms. Although lupine blossoms usually are blue, you also may see yellow or white flowers. The lupine leaf, called a palmate leaf, has five or more leaflets radiating outward from a single point on the stalk.

How does lupine grow?
Lupine belongs to an important family of plants known as the pea family (Fabaceae or Leguminosae). Legumes are one of the three largest families of flowering plants and are found in nearly all parts of the world. Beans, peas, soybeans, and peanuts all provide legumes. The sweet peas you may grow in your garden also are legumes.

On the roots of many legumes, including lupine, are nodules that house symbiotic bacteria. These bacteria contribute to healthy ecosystems by converting nitrogen from the atmosphere into forms plants can use. Scientists have discovered that, on the Fitzner/Eberhardt Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, lupine in a flush of growth can nearly double the amount of nitrogen in local soils. This is important because many soils in our area lack sufficient nitrogen.

There is one problem with lupine, though. It probably is not a good food choice for most animals as it is poisonous to livestock. Though all parts of the plant are harmful, the seeds are especially toxic. As little as one-half pound can be lethal to sheep.

Where does lupine grow?
Look for blooming lupine on slopes of hills and ridges and along the Columbia River in drier gravels and cobbles in April and May. Eight species are found in the Columbia Basin, many of them difficult to distinguish from one another. You may see low-growing species from 4 to 6 inches tall; others can reach more than 2 feet. Velvet lupine, sulphur lupine, and spurred lupine are three common local species. Velvet lupine is tall with a long spikelet of flowers while sulphur lupine is a smaller plant with more branches. Spurred lupine is more abundant on ridge tops.

Graphic: Shrub-Steppe Ecology Series Logo

Graphic: Notes... "Science is constructed of facts as a house is of stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." Henri Poincare

Washington is lucky to have several areas with relatively extensive shrub-steppe dominated by native bunchgrass. The two best areas are the Fitzner/Eberhardt Arid Lands Ecology Reserve (ALE) and the Yakima Training Center. The ALE Reserve contains over 40,000 contiguous acres of high-quality bunchgrass. The Training Center has well over 100,000 acres of high-quality shrub-steppe spread throughout its 325, 000 total acres.

Graphic: Suggested Activities...

1. Investigate the flower structure of lupine (and other native shrub-steppe plants).

Here's how: On the underside of the flower, before the flower opens, find the green calyx. These parts surround the delicate flower structures within. How many parts to the calyx? What do you think is the purpose of a calyx? The most conspicuous flower parts are the petals. The petals fuse at their bases but are free at the ends. How many petals? Are all the petals the same shape? Because of their different shapes, they have different names. The large broad petal at the top is the banner. The two matching petals are called wings. One petal is called the keel because of its resemblance to the keel of a boat. Separate the petals from the flower; draw each type of petal and name.

Inside the petals are the organs that produce the flower's reproductive cells, sperm, and eggs. Many long, narrow stamens surround the single pistil. Stamens are the male portions of the flower and have pollen sacks on their tips. Are the stamens in one group or two? How many stamens are there? Examine the tip of the pistil for pollen grains. These grains will grow an extension down through the pistil to carry sperm cells to the eggs within.

2. Flowers mature into seed-containing pods called legumes. Investigate the pod. Fertilized eggs develop into embryonic plants contained within the seeds. The pistil forms the "pod" or legume that contains the seeds. From a botanical standpoint, a fruit is a mature, seed-containing pistil.

Here's how: Examine the plant for legumes. Are any of them spiraling open to release their seeds? Draw the pod. Label the pod and the seeds. From a botanical standpoint, is a green bean a fruit or a vegetable? What part of a fruit is a pea?

3. Now look at the leaf.

Here's how: Use a magnifying glass or a hand lens to examine the leaf surface. A lupine's leaf structure is called palmate because the leaflets radiate out from a central point similar to fingers from the palm of a hand. Tiny extensions may be present that make the leaf look a little furry. These tiny appendages reflect the heat of the sun and reduce water loss. These structures make leaves look gray-green instead of bright green. You may want to collect a variety of leaves and compare them with lupine.

Questions a Scientist Might Ask: Your muscle cells contain lots of protein molecules that make muscles contract. Protein molecules contain nitrogen. Based on what you know about legumes, how could nitrogen make its way from the atmosphere into your muscle cells?

Graphic: Using Community Resources...

  1. Columbia Basin Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society (Dr. Steven Link, WSU-Tri-Cities, 100 Sprout Road, Richland, Washington 99352, 509-372-7000).
  2. Columbia Basin College. 2900 North 20th Ave., Pasco, Washington 99352, (Biology Faculty, Betty Walton, Jennifer Von Reis, 509-547-0511).

Graphic: Other Resources...

  1. Celebrating Wildflowers: An Educator's Guide to the Appreciation and Conservation of Native Plants of Washington, Wendy Scherrer and Traci Johannessen, 1996, North Cascades Institute, Sedro Woolley, Washington.
  2. Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS), University of California, Berkeley, California, School Yard Ecology ( Grades 3-6).
  3. Sagebrush Country, Ronald J. Taylor, 1992, Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana.
  4. Shrub-Steppe Seasons: A Natural History of the Mid-Columbia Basin, Lee Rogers, 1997. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Washington.
  5. The Petersons Field Guide Series: Pacific States Wildflowers, Niehaus and Ripper, 1976, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts.
  6. Weeds of the West, Tom Whitson, Editor, 1996, Pioneer of Jackson Hole, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Graphic: Web Sites...

  1. Botanical Society of America -
  2. Celebrating Wildflowers Coloring Books -
  3. California Flora -
  4. -
  5. USDA Plant Profile -
  6. Washington Native Plant Society -

Graphic: Acknowledgments...

Initial development and printing was funded by the Partnership for Arid Lands Stewardship. Written by: Betty Walton, Columbia Basin College. Series Editor: Georganne O'Connor; Design: WinSome Design; Printing: Eagle Printing and Graphic Design. First Printing: June 1998.

Graphic: Shrub-Steppe Ecology Series


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