Lupines- Blue Fields of Food?

by Sarah on February 16, 2010

Lupines (Lupinus) have a high oil and protein content similar to soybeans, they are also a good source of folate, magnesium, phosphorus and manganese.  They contain very little starch and are gluten free making them suitable for those with diabetes and celiac. So why is this plant almost completely ignored as a food source in many parts of the world, even in those areas where they were once grown traditionally?

There are three reasons for this- wheat, corn and soybeans which have come to monopolize agriculture in many parts of the world despite growing evidence that crop biodiversity is essential for sustainability. More research and money has been thrown at these three crops than any other and the governments and industries controlling this commodity do not have the economic incentive to change, even while the environment and small farmers suffer.

This is how wheat, a plant indigenous to the Middle East became a symbol of America. Every child knows how to sing,

“For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! ”

and it is not because of a shortage of other crops that wheat has become so dominant but simply because office agriculturalist lacked long term imagination.

There are thousands of potential edible crops in the world and only a small percentage are grown commercially because of the combination of lack of research and investment in them. For large agricultural conglomerates monetary gain is one of the only variables important in determining the crops that are grown but in small farms around the world this formula doesn’t always work.  It is becoming increasingly clear that culture  has enormous impact in sustainable practices, a movement which has grown tremendously in the last few years. Cultural diversity is closely tied to biodiversity as traditional knowledge of agriculture is held by the people who live on the land.

Lupine is just one example of a crop which has been used by local societies for centuries from the South American Andes Mountains to the Mediterranean and as far as the Levant where Druze and Arabs make it part of their diet. Although lupines were recognized as food from the Greek and Roman times, it has lost popularity, partly perhaps because it was considered fodder and not suitable for human consumption. There are areas where it is still eaten, mainly the Mediterranean such as Egypt, Portugal, Italy and the Levant. In Israel it can be bought at the local spice store and according the merchant the Jews of Egyptian heritage (or their descendents) are the main consumers. The cultivated variety is eaten very simply- first soaked overnight in water (or even longer), shelled and boiled until soft and eaten with salt. I once tried cooking lupines but it took a very long time to soften them, so instead I buy them from the Druze women when they visit the local markets.

Only the cultivated variety can be eaten as the wild species contains poisonous alkaloids which is found in variable amounts in the plant and can be harmful when eaten. In fact, lupines mean wolf in Latin perhaps alluding to the fact that both wolves and lupines have the ability to kill sheep when they mistakenly graze on them.

On a hike with Yael Ruder and her family this weekend in Nahal Tavor the lupines, Lupinus pilosus, were in full bloom, early for this year because of the exceptionally warm winter. Although the trail was crowded with couples and families enjoying the sunny weekend, I am happy to say that after years of public awareness campaigns I did not see anyone picking the flowers, which has become a protected plant.

Wouldn’t that be nice to see endless fields of lupine?

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