Lupin – Outstanding varieties from England
Woodfield Brothers ‘New Generation Hybrids’
Winners of over 13 gold medals at Chelsea & Royal Horticultural Society
Log House Plants invites you to try the Lupin ‘New Generation.’ We are excited about these 3½ feet to 4½ feet tall plants with up to 3-foot solid densely packed flower spikes, which feature a dazzling array of colors, ranging from cream, yellow and peach to pale pink, light reds, dark reds, and shades of blue and white.
Sixty years ago, the Russell lupin set new standards for border plants. Bred over twenty-five years by Yorkshireman George Russell and introduced to the market in 1937, the Russell strain elevated a sometimes weedy species to high horticultural status. Outstanding for plant form and color range, the Russells were the quintessential border lupin for decades.
Russell based his strain on our Northwestern native Lupinus polyphyllus, crossing forms selected in Canada with Western tree lupin (Lupinus arboreus) and tossing a few unrecorded annual species to create color breaks. These hybrids displayed an exciting array of colors, dramatically enlarging the simple palette of the species (blooms of blue, pink, purple or white in L. polyphyllus and yellow, blue, or lavender in L. arboreus).
Famed for spectacular, yard_long flower spikes, the Russell strain offers both delicate pastels and shining jewel tones as well as bicolors and tricolors. Pink deepens to rose and pales to blush. Blues run from hazy lavenders and regal purples to clear sky and water shades. The yellows encompass a wide scale of tints, from lemon and cream to copper and orange, buff and brick.
Over time, however, the strain lost its edge. By the 1950’s, George Russell had retired from active horticulture, passing his breeding stock on to Baker’s Nursery in Wolverhampton. After World War II, England’s troubled economy made for reduced nursery staff. Without adequate attention, the strain began to deteriorate badly. When the nursery closed its doors in the late 1960’s the Russell lupin seemed doomed.
Enter the Brothers Woodfield. Ex_guardsmen turned nurserymen, Brian and Maurice Woodfield had been improving older strains of delphinium and gladiolas through meticulous reselection. When they noticed the degeneration of the once_famed Russells, they were dismayed.
“The Russells were brilliant plants, just remarkable, but it only took a few years of neglect for the line to weaken,” says Maurice Woodfield. “If nobody is actively breeding, but just maintaining existing stock, any strain will deteriorate. You could see that happening within two years.”
Though the Woodfield Nursery in Stratford_on_Avon is tiny, in 1970 the brothers found room for the remaining Russell breeding stock and began to repair the damage. “The Canadian plants Russell worked with all had a flattened keel which was folded back on itself, so that you could see right through the flower stalks,” notes Brian Woodfield. “Russell eliminated that by selecting for larger flowers with bigger keels that lay flat, horizontal with the bell of the blossom. This made for a fuller, less rangy spike and a much better looking plant.”
In reselecting the ‘New Generation’, the Woodfields kept several goals in mind. “We bred for sturdy stems and shorter foliage, so ‘New Generation’ plants don’t need staking under normal garden conditions. The smaller foliage also helps to keep plants from looking so tatty once the blooming is past,” Brian explains.
“The other big problem was with premature browning,” he adds. “In poor flowers, the blossoms at the base are dying off before the top ones have opened. We wanted show quality spikes that remained in top form longer, with the whole spike open at once. Accomplishing that prolonged the bloom period somewhat as well.”
To this end, the brothers relentlessly rogued out any plants that didn’t have the desired qualities. Vigor, good overall form, and sturdy structure were the main requirements, with bigger, longer_blooming blossoms running a close second. The gratifying result is a line of compact plants that stand up to wind and weather, yet retain the towering bloom spikes of the original Russell strain.
“It went quite fast, really,” Maurice comments. “In just two or three years, we had pretty well eradicated both problems. With a sound breeding program established, we could start working on color breaks, trying to expand the existing range.” This they have done dazzlingly well, offering two dozen named forms as well as mixed color blends.
The Woodfields also wanted to improve several longstanding health problems which plague lupin. “By pulling all plants that showed mildew, we have almost eliminated it in our fields,” Maurice points out with justifiable pride. “Give ‘New Generation’ lupin plenty of water in spring and early summer, and you won’t see mildew. That comes from dry roots, and is quite avoidable,” he says, noting that the scarlet ones are the most susceptible.
Aphids are still a problem, Brain admits, “Particularly the Canadian aphid, which luckily is fairly easy to get rid of.” Mild attacks can be controlled with a hose, just by washing the plants off. Insecticidal soaps are useful for larger infestations, as are catchment crops of nasturtiums, which lure aphids away from almost anything.
Care and Culture
Lupin prefer a loose, open textured soil with plenty of humus. Lime haters, they appreciate the slightly acid Northwestern soils, though heavy clays should be amended with coarse grit or fine gravel to improve drainage. ‘New Generation’ lupin want plenty of water when in active growth, but can be lost to poor drainage during wet winters.
Not gross feeders, ‘New Generation’ lupin do best in ordinary good garden soils with ample humus. The plants are longer lived if fed moderately with mild, balanced fertilizers. A spring feeding mulch of compost and aged manure can be boosted as active growth begins by adding a handful of alfalfa pellets to each plant. (Alfalfa and manure are synergistic, each releasing more nitrogen to plants when used together.)
In the wild, the most prolific plants are solitary. In the garden, lupin bloom best when well spaced rather than crowded. Good air circulation also helps to keep mildew at bay. To encourage truly magnificent bloom spikes, set plants 18_24″ apart. When the flowers are spent, cut away the bloom stalks and trim back any foliage that looks untidy. A dose of manure tea will encourage new foliage, but it’s also a good idea to provide visual screening with late rising companion plants such as seakale (Crambe cordifolia) or Aruncus x ‘Zweiweltenkind’.
Because ‘New Generation’ plants are carefully crossed, open pollinated seed will not reproduce the parents exactly. However, home gardeners can keep this improved strain healthy by adapting the same principles the hybridizers use. Maurice Woodfield says, “George Russell was an amateur, really. He just saved seed of the best plants and pulled the bad ones. Even today, that’s all there is to it; just trial and error, so go on and give it a try at home. Mark plants with the best bloom spikes with a twist of knitting wool. Sow your seed, then rogue any plant that isn’t really good.”
The Woodfields have 100% germination when they grow their seed in rockwool (a lime_based mineral wool used for insulating heat pumps). They set blocks of rockwool in pans of water and sprout the seeds on top. If you can’t find rockwool, lupin also grow well in a mixture of sifted compost and perlite or vermiculite. Lupin seed will germinate best if chipped.
In any breeding program, it’s helpful to concentrate on just a few qualities. “Think about improvements,” Brian suggests. “Color breaks are always good; there’s no use introducing fifteen new whites when we already have fine whites. The idea is to develop plants that are markedly better than what we’ve already got. Healthier plants with better foliage are always valuable additions to a seed strain. And there are plenty of plants that need improvement. Hollyhocks are a great one; home gardeners can be keeping an eye out for hollyhocks without rust, or better delphiniums, or really great primroses. Almost any plant strain can use improvement, really, and amateurs can make a valuable contribution.”
© 1997 Ann Lovejoy for Log House Plants