The Lupin is a plant of my childhood and my suburban London garden, just like most people’s gardens in the 1950s, contained George Russell’s lupins. I can still remember packets of seeds with George Russell’s picture on the front. By then he was elderly, but he still had a wicked twinkle in his eye, and he wore a grandad shirt long before the Beatles made them popular. I’ve still got a thing about men in grandad shirts, by the way.
George Russell began breeding his lupin strain at the age of 54, although he didn’t stage his ground-breaking 1937 Chelsea exhibit until he was 79 years of age. Russell was an accomplished horticulturalist, but he chose to work as a jobbing gardener around York because his wife had poor health. One of his customers was Mrs Micklethwaite of The Mount in York. She arranged a vase of lupins and George didn’t think much of them when he saw them. They were weak and straggly things and he knew he could improve on them. He began to plant lupins on his allotment in Bishopthorpe Road in York using seed acquired from all over the world. Although many of these lupins were annuals, his selected lupins were all perennial with colourful flowers.
Once Russel’s lupins became famous, they were raised from cuttings in order to get the same plant because hybrid lupin seeds rarely if ever come true to type. Taking continual cuttings weakened his stock plants and they eventually succumbed to cucumber mosaic virus. Most of his named varieties, including the blue one he named after Mrs Micklethwaite, are long gone.
However Russell’s gene pool lives on in modern lupins because his work was carried on by a Wolverhampton nursery called Boningales and this carried on after Russell’s death in 1951. They raised and selected his lupins and, in doing so, collected huge sackfuls of seeds. Some of these seeds were passed on to a young policeman called Johnny Walker and he grew hundreds of lupins on his allotment, rather as Russell had done. Johnny concentrate don producing colour strains. In the late 1990s he passed on seeds to Sarah Conibear, now the co-owner of West Country Nurseries, and Sarah has carried on raising and naming lupins ever since.
Lupins were all over this year’s Chelsea Flower Show like a rash, probably because lots of other plants failed to flower in time due to this year’s cold spring. Their bold and stately flowers spikes, which come in strong colours that include blue, yellow and brick-red, seemed to find their way into every Chelsea garden, plugging those awkward gaps, but dominating the planting. You couldn’t see beyond those heavy spires to the finer things those gardens had to offer. I felt ‘lupinned’ out on the first day!
Catherine MacDonald’s Seedlip Garden, in the Space to Grow category, featured leguminous plants only and many of these were gentle scramblers, clovers and wildflowers. I looked at the plant list with envy and tried to identify some of the species I wanted to see, but I couldn’t get beyond those soldierly yellow lupins and they were everywhere! The gentler Galega officinalis, a blue wilding a little like a lupin, would have looked so much better.
I’m definitely for plants blending in, not jumping out at me, and at the moment I’m wrestling with an intersectional hybrid peony called ‘Bartzella’. It has enormous light-yellow flowers, more tea-plate than saucer in size, on a low plant that reaches between 2 and 3 feet in height. The stems are woody and the light-green foliage is more tree peony than herbaceous peony.
‘Bartzella ‘grows at the front of my house and walkers have come up and asked me what it is because you can’t miss it from the footpath running along the other side of my stone wall. Others have asked to paint it. It flowers for about four weeks and can produce 40 flowers. Is it churlish to say that it’s too much?
These intersectional hybrid peonies are sometimes called Itoh hybrids, because a Japanese man called Toichi Itoh raised them from 1948 onwards. It’s said he made 1,200 crosses before he finally managed to produce any seedlings from hybridising the yellow tree peony ‘Alice Harding’ with the double white P. lactiflora ‘Kakoden’. Sadly, Itoh died before any of his seedlings flowered, but American breeder Louis Smirnow saw them and persuaded Itoh’s widow to let him take them to America. Their arrival encouraged other breeders.
‘Bartzella’ was launched in 1968 and the raiser, Anderson, also named a pink called ‘First Arrival’. Both were incredibly expensive and a root of ‘Bartzella’ cost $500 in the early 1970s. Time has made both affordable and the current peony trial, being held at RHS Wisley, has several. I have particularly admired the mid pink ‘First Arrival’ and Kelway’s do sell this so I may well acquire it.
In the meantime I’m wrestling with what to do about ‘Bartzella’ because these stand-alone plants need their own space. Mine is trying to mingle with other peonies, but all you see are the giant, yellow flowers. It’s been dubbed Godzilla by the Best Beloved! Needless to say, I don’t grow any lupins but one Godzilla outdoes a thousand lupins all on its own.
The key to having a good garden is knowing how to combine plants, so I must bite the bullet and dig up ‘Bartzella’ and either move it to a stand alone position, or donate it to an unsuspecting garden friend, preferably a lupin lover.
Not as Easy as it Looks
Growing a good lupin isn’t that easy. Slugs attack them because they emerge early. The American Lupin aphid, a big grey job, can infest them and this alien aphid isn’t predated by our wildlife. On the plus side, that big grey aphid will only feed on lupins or closely related legumes. A good lupin also requires alkaline soil and good to reasonable drainage. Most modern lupins are micro propagated in glass flasks and you can get good tops and no roots!