JUN 04, 2018 09:05 AM PDT

The real story behind Maine's lupines and Miss Rumphius

You have probably read the story of the Lupine Lady – about the life of the woman who lived by the sea and spread beauty in the form of lupine seeds. The story tells of the romanticized life in Coastal Maine, where a woman called Miss Alice Rumphius desires to “do something to make the world a more beautiful place,” so returns home from her worldly travels and dedicates herself to her cause.

Well, surprise, Barbara Cooney’s 1982 picture book was based on the real life of a woman named Hilda Edwards, who actually did disseminate lupine seeds around Maine’s coast. Called the “Lupine Lady” or “Hilda Lupina” by her friends, Edwards took up the habit after returning from her own world travels and settling in Christmas Cove, in South Bristol.

Lupines are not native to New England; their European origin required Edwards to import seeds from England every summer until there were enough plants settled around the region that she could use already established seeds. Lupines were initially planted in Europe to stabilize soils and feed animals, according to the New England Historical Society, and bears like to eat their roots. In some European countries, lupines are so prolific that they threaten to crowd out forest herbs.

Though some lupines are successful food crops for animals, other varieties are toxic to animals and can cause discomfort for us humans if eaten. While the poison is present mainly in the seeds of the plants, small amounts are also in the foliage. Additionally, lupines post a risk to the plant community because they are susceptible to several fungal diseases and viruses and are host to a type of aphid that has few natural predators.

But that aside, no one can deny the beauty of the roadside lupine fields that fill northern New England in early summer. Lupinus polyphyllus stand three to six feet tall, bolstering long spiky blue, purple, pink, and white flower stalks. I can personally attest to the potential danger they cause on the highways heading North – their shimmering colors cannot help but draw the eye towards the highway meridians and away from the road!

A glimpse of Maine's famous wildflowers. Photo: Down East Magazine

But is all that exquisiteness really the result of one woman’s wish to make the world more beautiful? Researchers say that the hordes of early summer lupines didn’t show up in Maine until sometime around 1950 – when Hilda Edwards would have been in her 60s. So perhaps the dates don’t line up quite right, but the sentiment still stands, as does Miss Rumphius’ lesson: "You must do something to make the world more beautiful. "

Sources: New England Historical Society, SF Gate Home Guides

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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