RETURN OF THE RUSSELL LUPINES

After decades of decline, these magnificent perennials have regained their former glory

by RORY DUSOIR

photography by JOHN GLOVER

THE PERIOD BETWEEN 1850 AND 1950 WAS THE GOLDEN AGE of the nursery trade in England. Huge catalogs might carry 200 varieties of kniphofia, or even more of crocosmia. During these years, the hybrid bearded iris came into being and the sweet pea assumed its modern shape, as did the delphinium, the peony, and the Michaelmas daisy. There were many hands involved in these breeding efforts, but the modern lupine was almost entirely the work of one man, George Russell (shown above).

Russell, who was born in 1857, had at one time been a nurseryman, but when his wife fell ill, he became a jobbing gardener in order to care for her. By 1911, he was a widower living in the village of Copmanthorpe, near York. He also had a boy, Arthur Heard, to look after, the son of his neighbor, who in turn did her bit to look after Russell. The lad was sickly and was prescribed fresh air, so Russell took him to work on his private jobs and on his allotment. The story runs that Russell had been struck by a vase of Lupinus polyphyllus in the house of one of his employers, a Mrs. Micklethwaite. He concluded that there was potential for improvement in the flowers, and vowed to effect it himself.

Russell had used his allotment mainly for growing vegetables, and to carry out some early breeding experiments with daffodils and aquilegias. No longer—vegetables made way for species and cultivars of lupine gleaned from many different seed catalogs, until a second allotment was needed for their progeny. For the rest of his life, Russell demonstrated a single-minded devotion to his new obsession.

BREEDING A BETTER LUPINE

Russell’s aims were to extend the color range of the perennial lupine while also improving the form of its inflorescence. He didn’t want to see any daylight between the individual blossoms; he wanted to obliterate any glimpse of the green flower stem behind a solid wall of color. And the colors themselves should be vivid. (Because all three primary colors are represented by various species within the genus Lupinus, hybrid lupines have the potential to produce every color of the rainbow.) It was a question of grafting the positive qualities of these species onto the stately six-foot frame of Lupinus polyphyllus, while sifting out any negative propensities for tenderness or for being short-lived. And the flower form would then have to be refined by meticulous selection, so that the “keel” (lower part of the flower) would be plump and the standards erect, in order to hide all trace of green stem.

Russell was secretive about his methods and may never have recorded what species, varieties, and hybrids went into his lupine gene pool. But the range of plants available to the general public in those days is quite astounding by today’s standards, and presumably Russell deployed all the resources that were available to him. With engaging simplicity, he claimed never to have deliberately “coupled” two lupines by carrying pollen from one to another—he allowed the bees to do all that work for him. His job was simply to grow on the seedlings, assess their qualities, and eliminate weaklings with a clear head.

GLORY AND DECLINE

By that simple process, carried out over decades and assisted throughout by his “boy”, Arthur Heard, Russell’s race of lupines began to take shape. Word spread, and eventually Russell became famous. But he remained indifferent to the blandishments and money offered by nurserymen, English or American. Whatever sums were offered, not a single piece of propagation material was allowed to leave Russell’s allotments. It wasn’t until 1935 that James Baker, the owner of a large and thriving nursery near Wolverhampton, broke the deadlock. Claiming that it would be selfish of Russell to take his lupines with him to the grave, Baker offered all the resources of his famed nursery to continue selecting, and then to propagate, Russell’s lupines. He was also wise enough to reassure Russell that he would retain full control of his precious lupines, and offered to provide the old man, Heard, and Heard’s wife with accommodation on site. The nursery would merely take care of propagating approved plants and distributing them to the avid public. Russell took the bait this time, and promptly demonstrated that the new business arrangement would not be allowed to compromise his standards: when the 5,000 or so seedlings that he had brought with him came into flower, he whittled them down ruthlessly to 200, to his new employer’s great dismay.

The lupines were first exhibited formally at an RHS flower show in London in 1937. George Russell was 80. His exhibit, covering 500 square feet, won a gold medal and became a worldwide sensation. Baker was quick to realize that people had been touched by the story of Russell’s endeavor, and capitalized on it by picturing him on the front of the Baker’s catalog for several successive years. Every June, people flocked to the field in Boningale, Shropshire, where the lupines now flowered in huge numbers.

With the onset of war in 1939, food production became a nationwide priority, and the lupine fields were turned over to vegetables. George Russell, however, quietly and doggedly carried on his selections. It was the postwar years that amounted to a swan song not only for Russell’s lupines, but also for nurseries like Baker’s and for the old ways in general. The revolution, both chemical and mechanical, that had swept away the old agricultural practices was finally to move on to agriculture’s lesser cousin, horticulture. Labor was now scarce and increasingly expensive, and the great old firms began to fold one by one. When Russell died in 1951, at the age of 94, he left his lupines prey to market forces and to two new pests: the American lupine aphid and cucumber mosaic virus. Without Russell’s ruthless guiding hand, the seed strain soon declined, and the number of vegetatively propagated named selections dwindled to a handful.

THE RUSSELLS REVIVED

Some three decades later, the lupines found their rescuer. Pat Edwards started out as an apprentice gardener immediately after the war, and worked under Winston Churchill in the British prime minister’s country residence, Chequers. At horticultural college she met her husband, Michael, and they moved to Shropshire. In 1956, he took a job at Baker’s nursery, full of ideas for rejuvenating the ailing firm. He was frustrated by the skepticism of his employers, however, and left to start up his own business. That decision, although it initially caused hardship for himself and his young family, was in the end fully vindicated, for the Edwardses were eventually able to buy land from Baker’s as it collapsed. The Boningale site, scene of past glories, became theirs in 1977—acres of broken glass, peppered with self-sown, weedy lupines.

Growing Lupines

LUPINES ARE QUITE EASY TO GROW and are hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 9. They prefer reasonable drainage, full sun to partial shade, dislike lime, and need to be protected from drying out. In general they do not require an overly rich soil (in fact, manure rots their crowns), as they have the ability to absorb airborne nitrogen through nodules on their roots. Lupines are not especially long-lived, but can be kept vigorous by dividing them every other year with a sharp spade in spring, or through regular repropagation.

Propagation is easy, either by seed or cuttings. The seed remains viable for a long time, but has a hard coat and so requires nicking with a sharp knife (see photos, right) or soaking overnight before it is sown. When nicking the seed, avoid the hilum (the small scar where the ovules were attached) and be careful not to damage the light-colored endosperm. When potting up the seedlings, make allowance for their fanglike taproots.

Cuttings are the only sure way of propagating a particular form or color you like. These should be taken early in the spring, just as the plants are starting to grow. Take a shoot with a piece of rootstock attached to it, and remove about half of the leaves, cleanly. Insert into gritty compost in a shaded cold frame. They should root within a few weeks and will flower the following year.

Slugs will attack the lupine’s sappy foliage with glee and must be stopped. The large, gray-green lupine aphid has the capacity to devastate your display. Infestations must be detected early (the aphid will emerge from spring onwards) and attacked with insecticidal soap. Mottled or curled leaves should be treated with mistrust, as they may indicate that the plant is suffering from a virus. Virused plants should be destroyed, before aphids spread the disease, which is untreatable, to neighboring lupines.–R.D.

In 1986 Michael Edwards died, leaving Pat and their son in charge of a successful wholesale nursery. Since 1985, Pat had been painstakingly renovating the Russell lupine strain using some old seed, found on the Boningale site in plastic sacks, and crossing the seedlings with the best of the lupine “weeds” on the site, and with the few named Russell lupine hybrids still available (out of 152 originally introduced, only six remained).

Then the long, painful process of selection and reselection began again. Crucially, Arthur Heard, living out his last years at his cottage in Boningale, became involved and insisted on the same rigorous standards of selection as his old mentor. After nearly 20 years, almost matching George Russell’s quarter-century of struggle against recalcitrant genes, the lupines were ready to be marketed again. Pat was unable to divert her nursery’s resources to the propagation and sale of the lupines, and so these tasks eventually fell to John Massey and his renowned nursery, Ashwoods, in the West Midlands. The first new Russell lupines will be released this year. They may never be grown on the same grand scale again, but at least younger generations will now have the chance to experience an echo of former horticultural glories. H

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