Pygmy-leaved Lupine: the smallest members of a big family
Land of Four Seasons
May 27, 2023
Among the best-represented genera of plants in Kern County are the lupines, who number an amazing 25 different species within Kern's 8,172 square miles. The smallest member of this large group of related plants is the Pygmy-leaved Lupine, which grows and spreads its subtle beauty throughout the Tehachapi area.
These common wildflowers are low growing, ranging in height from four to ten inches, but despite their diminutive size they are an important component of our spring displays for two reasons: first, they are adaptable and grow in many locations, from the San Joaquin Valley floor to the upper slopes of the Tehachapi Mountains, so these little lupines are omnipresent; and secondly because they grow freely among other wildflowers and so contribute to natural bouquets of mixed flowers.
Pure stands of wildflowers are pretty in their own right and showcase a particular species' qualities, but some of the most pleasing displays are the unchoreographed blends of native flowers, like Goldfields, Owl's Clover, Popcorn Flower, Filaree, California Poppies, and most frequently, Pygmy-leaved Lupines (Lupinus bicolor).
The scientific name of these pleasant little annuals refers to the fact the flowers are two colors, blue and white. Occasionally you can find ones that are a variant color, usually pink like the one that accompanies this column. Flower-watchers love to see great examples of any given species' normal blossoms, but a special treat is the ones that are different, like white California poppies or pink Pygmy-leaved Lupines.
Some spreading colonies of these smallest of lupines is a good sign for the nutrient health of a field, because like all of their larger relatives, Lupinus bicolor have nitrogen-fixing nodes on their roots that contain bacteria which actually remove nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and store it in the nodules.
When the lupines die, this stored nitrogen enters the soil, leaving the ground more fertile than it was before the lupines grew. Because lupines have the ability to utilize atmospheric nitrogen, they can grow in nitrogen-deficient soil. This led early Roman horticulturists to wrongly assume that the lupines themselves must somehow have impoverished the soil, and they gave them the genus name Lupinus, meaning "wolf," because they mistakenly believed that the lupines had "wolfed" down all the nutrients.
It took research and the patient toiling of scientists to discover the beneficial truth about lupines, and now these plants and other legumes (members of the pea family that also contain nitrogen-fixing nodules) are used to improved depleted soil and stabilize erosion-vulnerable slopes.
Because they are annuals that die after they are done making seed, Pygmy-leaved Lupines, also known as Ground Lupines or Blue-and-White Lupines, are a good choice for rehabilitating nutrient-poor soils. Seeds are scattered in the fall, germinate in winter, flower in spring and die back in summer.
Found growing in all but three of California's 58 counties, Pygmy-leaved Lupines add both beauty and soil nutrients to the Golden State and deserve our admiration and appreciation. These little charmers have been blooming in Kern County for the past two months, starting at the lowest elevations, of course, and just now reaching the highest points.
Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.
Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at email@example.com.