Posted in Oh noes!, Plants

Why latin plant names matter #1, lupine

There is ongoing controversy as to what constitutes a “native” plant.  There are oodles of factors (wind, Pangaea, migration, et al.) that can go into the determination of such, which I will not get into here in length nor detail because the same info can be found elsewhere.

Having said that, instead I am hoping that this will be the first in a series where I highlight a given plant that can be found in the U.S.A., and how I came to find out if it was a good choice or not for my aim to foster habitat that will encourage and support local wildlife to visit our yard.

One thing I do want to point out is that here in the U.S., there seem to be a few camps of thought on the native issue.  Please understand that I’m going to overly generalize into four more typical groups to keep things as simple as humanly possible for my own sorting out process over time.  As I pen the stories in this series, I may mention some of the caveats that at least peek at some of the not as broadly defined reasons why if/when I learn them myself, including one in this entry below the list.

  1.  If it wasn’t here before the Colonists arrived…it’s not native.
  2. If it arrived with or after the Colonists arrived, and doesn’t seem to cause problems with what is considered native…it’s not native, but it’s naturalized.
  3. If it arrived with or after the Colonists arrived, and out competes similar natives, and/or spreads aggressively and/or hybridizes its aggressive traits with a related native…it’s invasive or noxious, depending on the severity of the damage it can cause to a given ecosystem.
  4. If it arrived with or after the Colonists arrived, and gardeners seem to love it…it’s not native, and it will be called naturalized until a State or the FDA realizes it’s invasive/noxious for that State or parts/all of the country and passes legislature deeming it invasive/noxious. Yet there will still be gardeners that even when they find out about the new designation will transplant it to the backyard and hope no neighbors report it.

#4 may seem extreme or outright silly, but there are indeed folks that will go to sometimes even greater lengths beyond a transplant to a less observable spot to keep what they like in their gardens, tossing aside the consequences to where they happen to live.  (I myself have planted one plant in my own garden knowing it’s not a native for sentimental reasons, and it’s still considered “naturalized” and not “invasive/noxious”.  I hope it never gets upgraded to invasive/noxious–time will tell.)

As I’ve been learning about why some things are considered native, introduced/naturalized or invasive/noxious, I’ve also been learning about how many native variants often become threatened because a showier variant (be it from another place of origin or due to hybridization) have ended up threatening the native with extinction or in fact have become extinct due to the showier, more preferred variant.

Last year I bought what I thought was a native pollinator friendly plant due to the common name, and then only found out after purchase it might not be.  What was it?  A Lupine. I bought it later in the season, so it no longer had flowers, but it’s a perennial and known self sower which made the purchase still make sense despite not getting to appreciate the flowers that year.

Although it is much easier in this day and age to find information about plants online, it’s also easy to find disinformation as well, often due to folks copying what they see posted elsewhere with little regard to the smaller details revealed when one delves into the Latin name variants.

Common names are often problematic because different variations can still share that common name.  Worse, some plant sellers will sell plants under the wrong name because somewhere along the production line, someone just stuck a “close enough” tag on it.  The worst of all is when an introduced variant gets sold under a common name where the introduced variant turns out to be invasive or noxious.

Like in my case with the Lupine.  Without getting into all the details and hours of research checking and double checking things, there is one variant of Lupine where the color is more even, and thus apparently was more attractive to gardeners.  This led it to be “the” blue shade lupine most growers starting focusing on selling because of growing demand.

Demand, meet Law of Unintended Consequences.

So now I want to introduce you to Lupinus polyphyllus, also commonly known as “blue lupine”.  The trouble is, there’s more than one “blue lupine” on the market, such as Lupinus perennisAlthough reputable/informed growers will call the perennis a “sundial lupine” for the common name, it’s also been labeled as “blue lupine” as well as “wild blue lupine” and even “wild lupine”.  Another detail worth noting is that both of these variants are included in hardiness zone 5b flowers, which is all that matters to some greenhouses and plant sellers. 

One such plant seller is the one I bought my introduced lupine from, which I only found out after several calls, and even then the lady could not tell me with any certainty what I actually had other than it was native to hardiness zone 5b because they buy them from another grower even though they grow many of the plants they sell on their property. 

I was calling because I was hopeful that I bought the right one, but I also know how often Mr. Murphy gets involved in my life.  Once again, he was visiting.  Never assume–even if a greenhouse or nursery touts “organic” or “native” labels that they really know what they are doing.  Why don’t we as a country have tighter standards for this sort of thing?  Because we’re capitalists?  Probably.  Yet we also are not alone in this sort of thing.

So why does it matter?  Why did I make the phone calls to check?  Because I read something about the Karner Blue Butterfly Lycaeides melissa samuelis when I was doing more research about Lupines so I could site it correctly and if there was anything it acted as a companion to as well.

What I read put just enough of a seed of doubt in my mind that I couldn’t shake it loose on faith alone.  So I made the call.  I sort of understood why the person that answered the phone might not know, but when she informed me that the fella that does the ordering also wasn’t sure, welp, let’s just say I lost any hope at that point.  Sadly, that lost hope bore out over the course of more phone calls.

Although loss of habitat is one reason for the devastating plummet of the Karner Blues’ numbers, the rise of popularity of Lupinus polyphyllus ended up pushing out the native that is less pure “blue”,  Lupinus perennis.  (You can see pictures of both if you follow the links per name.)  This was bad news for an already beleaguered species.

“But they’re both lupines!” you might say/think.  Welp, this is what scientists figured out after a lot of research: although the adult Karner Blue Butterfly can happily sip the nectar of either, their young (caterpillars/larvae) can only eat Lupinus perennis.  For whatever reason, the young simply cannot adapt to the northwestern U.S. native.  It could be that the short span of time where the polyphyllus rose in popularity among gardeners and overtook the perennis was too fast for them to evolve to eating that as well, or it could be something else, or multiple factors.  I don’t know.  I’m not a scientist, I’m just an avid reader and armchair speculator in this.  By the way, the Karner Blue isn’t the only one with that sort of issue either–and that’s just related to this one plant.

Now imagine yourself in my shoes at the time, and having just proudly saved seeds of the wrong lupine.  What do?  Find someone to send them to on the other coast where they are native?  Toss them in the baking bin?  Burn them in a fire along with other “naturalized” non-natives out of annoyance at the entire problem of gardening in general?  Certainly not plant them–that’d be insane no matter how frustrated I might feel, knowing what I now know.

At any rate, if you made it this far, I hope you learned something that helps you.  For me, the biggest takeaway was…Latin names matter…because I don’t want to be part of the problem.

(We won’t even get into what happens when plants get recategorized within the Latin families–nope.  That’s a research related mess left to another time.  I’m not ready for that rabbit hole just yet, if ever.)




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