Target Species: Blue Lupine (Lupinus perennis)
In keeping with the theme of “everything is bigger in Texas”, the Texas Legislature decided in 1971 that the original state flower, Lupinus subcarnosus, which was designated in 1901, simply wasn’t enough. Instead the Lonestar State decided that we would call any member of the genus Lupinus occurring within the state to be our official state flower. This would include the rare Blue Lupine (Lupinus perennis), even though it only occurred at a handful of sites in extreme southeastern Texas.
Known by other regional common names like Wild Lupine and Sundial Lupine, Lupinus perennis was first discovered in the 1930s in Orange County but subsequently disappeared from the county. In the 1970s it was rediscovered by premier East Texas botanist and conservation pioneer Geraldine Watson in the Big Thicket National Preserve.
Geraldine Watson was one of the most important, influential individuals in protecting the Big Thicket. She spent much of her life fighting to protect this unique area and documenting the flora of East Texas. Finding Blue Lupine after it was thought to be lost is just one of a long list of exceptional accomplishments attributed to her name.
Blue Lupine prefers open, sandy forests and savannahs. It has a curious distribution, occuring in Eastern North America, it ranges from eastern Minnesota in the west to the east along the Great Lakes into New England, then south and west again along the coastal plain until it reaches Deep East Texas. It is noticeably absent from the southern Appalachians and most of the South Central states. Lupinus perennis has been experiencing significant declines throughout its range. It has been extirpated in Maine, and has been declared as Threatened or Endangered in many of the states where it occurs. In many of the others where it is not listed, such as Texas, it probably should be.
I had previously seen and photographed Lupinus perennis in Maryland, where it is also rare. It has long been a dream of mine to see it in East Texas. I researched Geraldine Watson’s herbarium specimens, and though the location information was rather vague I used it to look at aerial imagery and soil maps to determine where I thought they likely occurred. I contacted the state botanist as a backup, and the area he described was right in the vicinity of the spot I had identified. Carolina and I set out with some friends, and after an adventure of a trek through sketchy, flooded backroads, we finally found our quarry.
Blue Lupine is a spectacular plant. Much more robust than the more familiar Texas Bluebonnets, its raceme (flowering body) may be close to a foot long. The upper petals start out with white centers that turn purple with age. It is believed that the turn occurs after the flower has been pollinated. As bees, the primary pollinator for lupines, will more likely visit the fresher, whiter blooms to receive a greater pollen reward.
In my humble opinion, Blue Lupine is one of the most spectacular plants of the Big Thicket. It is a shame they aren’t more common, but seeing them at peak bloom in East Texas is an experience I will never forget.