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28 Jun 2022

Crathes Garden blog #14: Lovely lupins

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate and author of Notes from Crathes blog
A group of pink lupins grow in a border. Clusters of pink-purple flowers grow all the way up their chunky stems.
Lupins in the June Border, Crathes Castle Garden
Our expert garden guide has been sharing a blog offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what the team are working on in the garden at Crathes. This month, she takes a look at the lupins, currently in full bloom in the June Border.

The 1940s suburban Manchester garden of my childhood was full of lupins. The 2022 June Border of Crathes Castle is full of lupins. And all the gardens in between seem to have had at least some lupins.

There are no native lupins in Britain, but some species, which originate from North America, have been grown in British gardens for centuries and have naturalised quite readily in Scotland. [1] The tree lupin, Lupinus arboreus, is a favourite of mine. I once collected a few seeds from a dried-up, shrivelled plant growing on an abandoned railway near St Andrews, and they germinated and thrived in my Moray coastal garden where their pale yellow abundance filled me with joy. I took their seeds to Torphins and enjoyed them there too for a while.

Lupinus polyphyllus is the original garden lupin, found in creeks and damp places mostly in western America from South Alaska to California and eastwards to Quebec. It is one of the parents of the Russell lupin – the other being the tree lupin – and is usually blue but may be pink. The Nootka lupin (Lupinus nootkatensis) is similar in appearance, though often blue and white. I have seen it, or maybe a hybrid, growing on shingle islands in the Spey estuary. I have also seen it (or L. polyphyllus) growing beside the Dee a mile or two north of Banchory.

Because lupins were found in poor soil, it was assumed that they depleted the soil. The plant was given its name after Lupus lupus, the wolf, which eats all that comes its way. We now know that lupins are legumes – plants in the pea family – and they actually improve the soil with their nitrogen-fixing root nodules.

In 1727, Alexander, 4th Baronet of Leys ordered ‘4 drope of yelow Lupin’ (a drop is 1/16th of a Scottish ounce = 1.921 grammes). This amount of seed is not enough to provide fodder or an improvement crop so maybe these were the first lupins to grace the Crathes flower garden. 200 years later, when the June Border was designed by Sybil, Lady Burnett in 1937/8 (see my earlier blog Castle, cottage and fine design), the Russell lupins were being newly exhibited to the world at the 1937 Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) annual show to great acclaim.

A year later, anyone could buy a packet of 12 seeds for a shilling – just a penny a seed. They were easy to grow and give a second show if deadheaded after flowering. But then came the Second World War and the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. The June Border was replanted with vegetables that helped to feed the convalescing soldiers who were rehabilitated at the castle. After 1945, colour began to return. I still have a brightly coloured jug that is all that is left from the tea set that replaced our wartime china. In the garden, lupins were just what we needed.

Very colourful flower beds line a gravel path in a walled garden. In the background stands Crathes Castle,
Lupins in bloom in the June Border at Crathes Castle Garden

I had assumed that the ‘Russell’ in the lupin name referred to Jim Russell of the well-known Sunningdale Nurseries in Surrey (although I now realise that the dates don’t tally). However, a book I recently picked up informed me differently. [2]

George Russell (1857–1951) made his living by doing odd gardening jobs and working in nurseries in and around York and Lincoln. He grew fruit and vegetables on his two allotments and experimented with breeding flowers. When he was in his 50s, he focused on improving lupins. Probably largely self-educated, he knew about Mendel’s experiments with peas. He worked on his lupins for 23 years with the intention of breeding a flower spike that was so crowded with individual flowers that the central stem could not be seen. He was ruthless about destroying any plants that were below expectations.

In 1934 the Baker Nursery bought the lupin collection and George continued to work with the breeding programme over in Wolverhampton. In 1937 the Baker Nursery exhibited the lupins at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The nursery was awarded a gold medal and George Russell was awarded the RHS Veitch Memorial Medal – a very high honour. All his passionate, painstaking, meticulous work was rewarded and Russell lupins continue to give us pleasure in gardens throughout the country.

We don’t know the names of all the lupins at Crathes, but we can make a guess at some. James [the head gardener] has recently bought some new plants: ‘Magic Lantern’ and ‘Manhattan Lights’. It may be that ‘Manhattan Lights’ already grows there – as I think about this, I realise that its growth does suggest a skyscraper at night. The new plants will spend a year bulking up in the nursery before being planted in their allotted place.

I will be growing lupins (maybe tree lupins) in my new garden. I know that they are especially favoured by bumblebees; the competing honey bees are not quite heavy enough to access the nectar easily and carry out effective pollination. The other plans I have for my new (small) garden are a mini meadow and a bug house. I experimented with meadows in my old garden and I follow the developing meadows at Crathes with great interest.

The signs of summer are plentiful at Crathes just now. The pink campions and ox-eye daisies make a great show and as the year progresses the variety will increase. Yellow rattle, parasitic on grasses, is crucial for suppressing the more vigorous grasses. Whilst inspecting the meadows, I noticed a solitary bee just coming out of one of the holes in the bug hotel by the wildlife garden. It withdrew into its hole as I bent down for a closer look. Every insect is a bonus these days when the planet is under attack from all sides – I know many of us curse the midges, but they are vital to the swallows.

A meadow area with long grass and big daisies growing throughout.
Ox-eye daisies brighten up the meadow at the viewpoint.


  • The Welcome building is making progress and I hear that the green roof has just been planted. Meantime, the alternative gate to the garden opens to a grand show of Meconopsis (blue poppies).
  • The oystercatcher managed to hatch three chicks, but one by one the gardeners watched them lose the battle for survival. The chicks are precocious – meaning they leave the nest as soon as they hatch to reduce the chance of predation. The parents continue to ward off predators as best as possible and there was a lot of noise around the Red Garden for some days. We all get very attached to these lovely characterful birds.
  • The Rose Garden is still waiting for the go-ahead.

[1] Clive Stace, New Flora of the British Isles, Cambridge University Press, 1992

[2] Alex Pankhurst, Who does your Garden Grow?, Earl’s Eye Publishing, 1992

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