Lupines [Lupinus spp] are annual or perennial herbs or shrubs of the family Leguminosae (pulse family) with members nearly worldwide; over 300 species are native to cool climates of the western US. Lupines have been cultivated in the Mediterranean region since ancient times for enriching the soil with the seeds of some species used as food; as forage, lupine is poisonous, particularly to sheep and horses. A drug, however, has been extracted from lupine for management of cardiac arrhythmias. The genus is widespread from valley bottoms to high mountain areas.
As a garden flower the lupine is favored because of the various colors and the tall spikes of bonnet-shaped blossoms. The leaves are Palm shaped with finger-like segments and can be hairy to silky and silvery on both surfaces. Its flowers are small, spurred at the base, and attached to the stem by a slender stalk (raceme). Typically, lupines grow from 10 to 24 inches tall, with one or more stems growing from a shortly branching taproot, from whence comes the Latin-derived name lupus for wolf, referring to the old false myth that the deep taproot wolfed soil nutrients.
While lupines can be seen along roadsides and drainage ditches in the Davis area, it typically prefers cool moist habitats with brightly dappled shade such as might be found along the California coast or mountainous regions. The lupine is often associated with spring — following the winter rains and as temperatures begin to rise, lupine fills many fields and roadsides in the lower elevations of the state. As spring progresses and lower altitude lupines wither in the hot sun, conditions on the many mountain slopes and meadows improve and provide a perfect habitat for the lupine to continue their fragrant ascent into the mountains.