On the Moral Importance of Lupines

“The Lupine Lady lives in a small house overlooking the sea. In between the rocks around her house grow blue and purple and rose-colored flowers. The Lupine Lady is little and old. But she has not always been that way. I know. She is my great-aunt, and she told me so.”

So begins one of our favorite children’s books which has also become a gardening inspiration for Elsie and me, Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney.  Though first published back in 1982 I only became aware of it a few years ago when dear friends of ours gave a copy to Elsie.  The book is not just a great story and moral tale for children but is also beautifully illustrated by the author.  I am not little or old (yet) though we do live near the see in a home surrounded by rocks in between which grow blue and purple and rose-colored flowers and we have Barbara Cooney and her character Miss Rumphius to thank for that.  How could you look at an illustration like this and not want to plant a lupine or two (or ten)?


There are some 200 species of Lupine across North and South America as well as North Africa and the Mediterranean.  Most gardeners are familiar with cultivars of  Lupinus polyphyllus (native to the pacific northwest) and Lupinus x regalis. Those most popular with gardeners and that are routinely encountered in garden centers are the result of careful selection, hybridization, and breeding by English gardener George Russel in the early 1900s.  The popular compact (growing to 18 inches or so) multi-colored “gallery” series are a result of his diligence and are available in a wide range of colors like ‘Gallery Pink, “Gallery Blue,” ‘Gallery Yellow’ so on and so forth. I have been growing the gallery series for a few years now, and they are beautiful. In addition, they are a favorite of pollinators and hummingbirds and are deer resistant, making them a perfect addition to a habitat garden.


Like other gardeners I have found the gallery series to be a bit fussy, with perhaps 50 to 75% returning for a second or third year.  Vermont based nursery American Meadows indicates that many gardeners (especially those in New England) may prefer to treat the gallery series as annuals. I think my mixed results may also be because of changing sun exposure in the garden as plants have matured; Lupines like full to part sun and I fear some of mine may have gotten shaded out.

They are a stunning plant and while I will continue to lavish care on my gallery series lupines in order to promote self-seeding. I also want to introduce some other species and/or cultivars in the coming years that may be a bit more durable including native sundial lupines Lupinus perennis which is significantly taller than the gallery series and can grow to 36 inches. L. perenis typically has a light blue flower but can show some variation in bloom color. On a recent trip to Maine I spotted some lupine growing by the side of the road on Deere Isle as we waited for the ferry to Isle au Haut.


Apart from their beauty and value as a plant for pollinators Lupines also contribute to the health of other garden plants as they are a nitrogen fixing legume. This year I am experimenting with planting Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) around the lupines as a way of keeping the root zone cooler.  When planting, pick your spot carefully; Lupine grow from a tap root that does not like to be disturbed and therefore do not take well to transplanting once they are established in a spot that makes them happy.

Anyone who has ever watched the racems emerge from the mount of dark green palmate leaves and progressively bloom from base to tip knows that this is a plant he or she will always want in the garden.

Anyone that has every grown this stunning perennial also understands why Barbara Cooney would make it the centerpiece to the story of Miss. Rumphius.

Alice Rumphius spent much of her time as a young girl in the company of her grandfather who was a carver and painter and who had sailed to foreign lands.  Captivated by his stories, Alice Rumphius promises that she too will travel the world and see exotic places and when she grows old she too will live by the sea.

“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do”

“What is that?” asked Alice.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.

So she travels the world and as she grows old she comes to live by the sea. When I spotted some Lupine growing by the rocky shores in Stonington, Maine I thought of our Lupine loving traveler and the moral imperative passed on from her grandfather.  Looking up the sloping ground above the harbor dotted with small clapboard houses it appeared to me that this little town may have very well emerged from the pages of Comey’s book.   In fulfillment of her promise to her grandfather Miss. Rumphius spreads Lupine seeds among the rocks and hills surrounding her little town.

“All that summer Miss Rumphius, her pockets full of seeds, wandered over fields and headlands, sowing lupines. She scattered seeds along the highways and down the country lanes. She flung handfuls of them around the schoolhouse and back of the church. She tossed them into hollows and along stone walls…

The next spring there were lupines everywhere. Fields and hillsides were covered with blue and purple and rose-colored flowers. They bloomed along the highways and down the lanes . Bright patches lay around the schoolhouse and back of the church. Down in the hollows and along the stone walls grew the beautiful flowers.

Miss Rumphius had done the third, the most difficult thing of all!”

My day job is as a professor of social work at a local university where I teach health care policy (among other things) and lecture on health and behavioral health ethics.  When I look at the current debates on health care or other social welfare policies I see emerging a disquieting line of ethical reasoning which says that our moral obligations in this world extend no further than doing what is in our own self-interest; ethicist call this moral egoism.  If you’ve ever read Ayn Rand you will spot this impoverished sense of morality straight away. It is the sort of stilted ethics we often associate with children and teenagers whose ego development is still in progress or who have otherwise not yet learned how to share.

As a parent I search for ways to teach my daughter that one’s own self-interest is not a moral end.  We teach her—as most parents do—that we have a duty to others.  For us this also includes other species and so gardening is as much a moral exercise as it is a physical one.  The story of Miss Rumphius has been one of the tools we use in thinking and talking about the moral dimensions of gardening and our greater responsibility to something more and other than just ourselves.  The lupines we plant are a reminder of her story that we look forward to every spring.

It is true that we tend to our planting for reasons that may be motivated by our self-interest.  We certainly cannot discount our own aesthetic enjoyment or the peace we find in digging in the soil and seeing our efforts to fruition each spring, often in a dramatic and colorful fashion.  But it is more than that.  We plant in order to restore the land and to provide for others.  A place to live for animals or seeds for birds or the creation of something beautiful for other to enjoy, and we do all of this hoping it will continue to flourish long after we are gone.

“Sometimes my friends stand with me outside her gate, curious to see the old, old lady who planted the fields of lupines. When she invites us in, they come slowly. They think she is the oldest woman in the world. Often she tells us stories of faraway places.

“When I grow up,” I tell her, “I too will go to faraway places and come home to live by the sea.”

“That is all very well, little Alice, ” says my aunt, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” I ask.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful . “

“All right,” I say.

In my professional life I am confronted with the stories and images of those for whom life is a daily struggle of sickness, or poverty, or homelessness, or mental illness or addiction. I am then challenged to help come up with policy solutions to these incredibly complex problems.  When one understands as I do the magnitude of the challenge it is sometimes hard to muster the fortitude to keep plugging away.  Thankfully, I have many things in my life that inspire me. Most notably the hundreds and hundreds of students that have passed through my classroom who have made great sacrifices in order to pursue a career serving others.  It is hard to be too pessimistic about the future when you spend your days surrounded by people who have committed themselves to the welfare of the most vulnerable and marginalized.


My family and I will continue to plant lupine among the rocks around our house not because gardening is some escape from the sometimes unpleasant realities of life or just an act of egoism and self-fulfillment, but because like teaching or parenting or the many other things we do that are aimed at a future and a world that is physically and temporally beyond ourselves planting something is always an optimistic act.

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