The Unnatural Beauty of Flowers


Lupins blooming near Lake Tekapo, South Island, NZ

“Lupines” are a collection of several annual or perennial herbaceous plant species belonging to the pea family. They are native to North and South  America and the Mediterranean basin. One species, the Oregon lupine, is threatened in its upland prairie habitat.

But the lakeshores of New Zealand are not the natural home of these dramatically beautiful flowers. In New Zealand, the flower does more than drop the “e” from its name. Lupins burst into explosions of bloom along the shores of New Zealand’s Lake Tekapo and on the lower slopes of Mt. Cook. They provide feed for the ubiquitous sheep. They look glorious and few travelers would even stop to think if they belong there, let alone wonder what native plants they’re crowding out.

I am reminded of the iconic children’s picture book, Miss Rumphius, among whose charming elements are those lupines. I’ve had a few quibbles with other elements of the book, especially with the spreads in which Miss Rumphius travels the world and meets the “Bapa Raja” of an unnamed tropical isle. Why exactly, I wonder, did he take her into his house and serve her himself? Why did he give her a shell on which he’d painted the words, “You will always remain in my heart?” Would the king of a tropical island do this as a matter of course for some foreign lady who walked up and down his beach pocketing the shells? Honestly, study this closely and it could be a 4-page history of the colonial experience!

But I’ve never wondered about those lupines. Until today.

It turns out that scattering the seeds of gloriously prolific flowering plants is only one way in which we humans have shaped the planet, and not always for the better. There’s a whole science now of invasion ecology because “biological invasions impact everything from ecosystems to commercial enterprise and human health.”

The New Zealand Department of Conservation maintains that thick stands of invasive Russel lupin negatively impact the “habitat of threatened braided riverbed birds such as wrybill/ngutu parore, black stilt/kakī and banded dotterel/tūturiwhatu.”


Sorry, Miss Rumphius. The lupines are beautiful, no question. But was that a good idea? And what grew on that bare hill that those flowers choked out?

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