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The Lupine Prairies Nov 28 08

That big splotch of violet on my radar means snow to the north. Right now, White Cloud, Stanton, Mecosta, and Edmore are getting a little taste of winter. We’ll see some of that here in Caledonia as well sometime today, but right now the sky is partly sunny, filled with long, gray cumulus floating by like battleships. I like this kind of day—not sombre, just moody, a patchwork of character and interest lit by passing flashes of sunlight, gilded cloud edges, and swatches of blue.

Given my druthers, though, I’ll trade the blue skies of November for those of May, and the purple on my radar screen for purple lupines in the field.

On open hillsides, roadsides, oak barrens, and dry sand prairies—anywhere sandy soil and plenty of sunlight connect—you’ll find the striking spires of the wild lupine growing. Regrettably, due to fire suppression and habitat loss, you won’t find lupine as often as in days gone by, but where it does grow, it often does so in spectacular stands. Lupinus perrenis reaches its zenith in southern Michigan. In some places, such as the oak savannas in the Allegan State Game Area, colonies of the plant are managed in an effort to enhance populations of the Karner Blue Butterfly. A federally endangered species, the Karner Blue lives only where the wild lupine grows, and it appears to be picky about its lupine, too. Ten counties in Michigan harbor known butterfly populations, though lupine certainly grows elsewhere.


Used in Native American medicine to stop hemorrhage and vomiting, wild lupine also goes by a few other, rather fanciful names. “Bluebonnets” and “old maid’s bonnets” are self-explanatory: a spike of the flowers resembles a miniature hat rack filled with tiny bonnets. “Sundial” is more obscure. I haven’t managed to locate a name origin via the Internet, but I can at least hazard a guess. If you use your imagination, you can easily see a resemblance between the splayed, palmate leaves and miniature sundials.

Taxonomically, lupines have gotten a most undeserved rap. The name comes from the Latin word for “wolf,” tracing to a Native American belief that the plant devoured the nutrients in the soil—an understandable but false notion. The sandy and rather stark conditions where lupine thrives aren’t the most hospitable habitat, though butterfly weed, horsemint, and a few other field plants love such environs. But lupine, far from impoverishing its surroundings, enriches them. A legume, lupine fixes nitrogen in the soil. Don’t, however, look to wild lupine as a forage plant just because it belongs to the pea family and produces pods. Some species of lupine do in fact make great food sources, but the alkaloids in Lupinus perrenis are toxic—of possible medicinal value in small amounts, but poisonous and even deadly in larger doses.

So forget about adding wild lupine to your table fare. Just enjoy feasting your eyes on it when it’s at its prime. Along Alden Nash Avenue heading north from I-96 toward Lowell, if you keep your eyes open you’ll spot a hillside that in late May and early June is a wash of purple lupines. A house sits at the top of the hill, and I suspect that the folks who live there know what they’ve got growing on their property and are intentional about encouraging its growth. I like to think so. Driving past that hillside is a treat, and an encouragement that humans and nature not only can coexist, but were created to. That was in the original blueprint when God set Adam and Eve in the garden to cultivate it and protect it. I’ve got to believe it’s why we recognize and appreciate beauty wherever we find it. There’s no lack of it in the Michigan outdoors.



Written by Dave.