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A Landscape of Lupins

I recently posted about PEI’s Provincial flower, the Pink Lady’s Slipper. Now let’s look at a plant many people think should be our Provincial flower: the Large-leaved Lupin (Lupinus polyphyllus, Photo 1).

Photo 1: Lupins (Lupinus polyphyllus) have become an iconic sight in the PEI landscape, but this wasn't always so. These purple, pink, yellow, and white flowers were introduced to the Island in the early 1900s.

Even if you’re not on PEI, you likely know our Lupins are flowering now. Social media feeds, tourism literature, and our landscape itself are all awash in these colourful flowers. But what seems like such an iconic Island scene wasn’t always so. Indeed, those images of Anne of Green Gables frolicking in fields of Lupins are out of place; it’s doubtful the plants were here in the late 1800s setting of the famous book, and they wouldn’t have been at all common on the Island until nearly a century later.

Lupins likely arrived on the Island in the early 1900s as a garden ornamental from the west coast. By the 1950s they had spread, but not by much. David Erskine (who did extensive botanical work here in 1952-53) noted Lupins could be found locally in cemeteries and along some roads from Hunter River east. As a kid back in the late 1970s, I remember taking road trips to Souris and Bothwell, being thrilled to see the Lupins in eastern PEI. At that time, they were much less common elsewhere in the province.

Today, Lupins are common in roadside ditches and fields across the Island, although moreso in Queens and Kings Counties. The exponential expansion of the past few decades has been partly natural and partly aided by well-meaning people intentionally spreading them. Around 50 years ago, even the Provincial Government got involved: Lupin seeds were supplied to local Women’s Institutes so those volunteers could distribute them from tip to tip. At this point, it would be virtually impossible to eradicate Lupins (not to mention socially unacceptable!).

So what are the good and bad points about Lupins? They’re legumes (members of the Pea Family, Fabaceae) and so improve soil by making nitrogen more available to plants. Bees appreciate them, so they do have some value to pollinators. And they are pretty. On the other hand, they are invasive and displace native grasses, sedges, rushes, ferns, and wildflowers. They also contain alkaloids that are toxic to people, pets, and livestock; this is not a plant you want in your pasture or hay. (There are edible, low-alkaloid Lupin species - Lupinus albus and L. angustifolius most commonly - but these don’t grow wild on PEI).

Lupins are easy to grow. Adding them to your property is as simple as collecting seeds in late summer, after the pods have dried. (If they’re dark and rattle when you shake them, they’re dry). You can broadcast them in fall or stick them in the freezer over the winter to sow in spring. They don’t produce true to colour, so just because you collected seed from a pink or white patch doesn’t mean you’ll get pink or white flowers. Purple is the dominant colour and you can expect Lupin patches to become more and more purple as they reproduce.

Another cool - though not native - PEI plant .

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Lupine is not mentioned in the Anne Shirley series or any of Lucy Maud Montgomery's other novels. Although Maud mentions about 150 species of PEI plants in her works, lupins are not among them. He describes, for example, the Pink Lady's Slipper by calling it ladies' lips: "Starflowers grow here, too, spirit pale and fair; and ladies' lips are found in abundance by those who know just where to look for them, but never reveal themselves to the casual passer-by. They are not, as their name might suggest, red, but creamy tinted. Perhaps it is their surpassing sweetness which accounts for the name. Their perfume is richer than that of the June-bells and every whit as haunting and mystical." a…

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