Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Wildflower Wednesday: Thermopsis villosa, Another Fabulous Fabaceae

If you're looking for a beautiful accent plant that's attractive to bumblebees and butterfly I think you'll be happy with Carolina lupine. Itslong spikes of butter yellow pea-like flowers are beautiful.This upright beauty resembles lupines and is related to Baptisia. 

New Moon nursery describes it as an upright unbranched wildflower anchored by a sturdy taproot. You'll want to site this tall plant carefully (in bloom it can reach 5 feet tall and spread up to 3 feet wide) because once the tap root is settled it might be difficult to transplant. 

Foliage is bright green with compound trifoliate oval leaflets in each leaf. Leaflets are 2-3” long with hairy lower surfaces. Villosa means covered with soft hairs and when you look closely you can see the hairs on flower buds. 

click on photo to enlarge to see hairs

Thermopsis villosa  grows happily from Maine to Georgia and west to Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. Plants are indigenous to the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina, but have been introduced into other states. In the wild you'll find it in woodland clearings, open meadows, prairies, road banks and disturbed fields. (source) It is adaptable to rich garden soils throughout the eastern United States. Although, it's described as drought tolerant, that  doesn't apply to our extended southern droughty months, you will probably need to water it.


Bumblebees are the primary visitors to Carolina lupine in my garden. The bees are visiting for the nectar and pollen and while there they do a great job of pollinating the plants. I always have a good seed crop should I want to try growing it, but, I refer to leave the seedheads standing. This morning I noticed the Goldfinches were already gathering on the stems, not sure if they are using it for support or if they're early to get seeds.


I haven't seen butterflies nectaring on it, but then, I don't usually see a lot of butterflies this early in my semi shady garden. It could also be cause we've had an incredibly rainy spring. Look for blooms in late spring, that's May in my middle Tennessee garden. It's not quite the end of the month and they've already started their journey to cool legume seedheads.

Seed pods are villous (having long, shaggy hairs) and some gardeners cut them back in hopes of a second bloom. I like the seedheads and since I garden for wildlife, I prefer to leave the seedhead standing for songbirds that visit or live here. The foliage is said to be good cover for critters should a predator fly over.

 What I like about Thermopsis villosa:

  • It makes a great statement in a garden
  • The sulphur yellow flowers bring on the bumbles
  • Drought-tolerant, not fussy about soil, and requires low maintenance
  • Unpalatable to deer
  • A good cut flower
  • The foliage is lovely
  • The yellow is stellar in an evening garden
  • Seeds feed Goldfinches and other songbirds


Propagation Material: Root Division, Seeds 

Description: Seeds can be sown outdoors upon collection or stored, treated and sown later. Mature plants may be divided in the fall but new divisions recover slowly. The problem with deep taproots is that they are nearly impossible to dig up without breaking off. I've no experience with this, but I have read that the roots are so thick one might need a hatchet to divide them. 

Seed Collection: The mature, brownish legume pod begins to split 5-6 weeks after the bloom period. Collect the pods and let them air-dry a few days before removing seeds. Store in sealed, refrigerated containers. 

Seed Treatment: Germination of stored seed is more uniform if the seeds are presoaked in boiling water and allowed to cool in the water for at least twelve hours before planting. Can take up to 3 years to establish itself.

Sowing: Nancy Ondra from Hayefield says this: "I recommend these seeds for experienced seed-starters only, because they can require a good bit of patience. One approach is to sow outdoors (about 1/4″ deep, in pots or a holding bed) in fall or winter, so the seeds can germinate when conditions are right in spring.

The Fabaceae family is pretty darn cool and includes, trees, shrubs and herbacious perennials and annuals. It's the third largest plant family in the world, only surpassed by the Orchid and Composite/Daisy families. If you see a plant with legume fruit you will know it's a Fabaceae. Legume plants often form symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria. An easy family to id if you remember these key words~ "banner, wings, and keel" and pea-like pods, often with pinnate leaves.



Botanical name: Thermopsis villosa

Common name: Carolina lupine, Carolina bushpea, Aaron's rod, False lupine, Blue-ridge buck bean

Family: Fabaceae: is the the third largest plant family.  An easy family to id if you remember these key words "banner, wings, and keel" and pea-like pods, often with pinnate leave.

Life Cycle: Perennial 

Recommended Propagation Strategy: Root Cutting and seed 

Native Distribution: Mountains of GA, AL, TN, NC, & WV: the southern Appalachians. note: Discrepancy between sources about range of the plant, with some saying it occurs only in the southern Appalachians and others extending the range much farther north. (source)

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone: 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b

Flower Color: Sulphur yellow. Cream/tan seedheads.

Flower Inflorescence: Raceme/Spike. A showy and excellent cut flower.

Bloom Time: Spring into summer depending upon where you garden.

Dimensions: Height: 3 ft.- 5 ft. Width: 1 ft. to 3 ft.

Habit/Form: Clumping and erect  with taproot.

Light: Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day) Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours) 

Soil Texture: Clay, High Organic Matter, Loam (Silt), Sand 

Soil pH: Acid (<6.0) Soil 

Drainage: Good Drainage  

Wildlife Value: 7+ species of Lepidoptera, including several species of Sulphur butterflies, Duskywing butterfly and skipper butterflies. A very good pollinator plant – provides pollen and nectar to bees and nectar to butterflies. Provides seeds for songbirds, hollow stems for bee nesting and foliage provides shelter for birds and small mammals.

Deer resistance: I've never had any problems with critters eating the blooms, which makes me very thankful because the deer treat this garden like it's a smorgasborg dropping in when ever they feel like it.

 Comments: Good in garden bed, native garden, naturalized garden, meadow. Cut the foliage back about a month after flowering and it may bloom again in fall, but you will get no seeds. Plant with with Aster, Echinacea, Oenothera, Penstemon, Rudbeckia and prairie grasses.

 Welcome to Clay and Limestone and Wildflower Wednesday.  This day is about sharing wildflowers and other native plants no matter where one gardens~the UK, tropical Florida, Europe, Australia, Africa, South America, India or the coldest reaches of Canada. It doesn't matter if we sometimes share the same plants. How they grow and thrive in your garden is what matters most.


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Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. This is former Corner Gardener Sue in SE Nebraska. I just did a search in my Facebook group to see when I planted this. I didn't figure it out, but it looks like I got it from the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum. It is doing well this season, and I am tickled to see the cheerful yellow blooms!

  2. Oh yes, that's lovely, and it looks beautiful in your woodland garden. Thanks for sharing the video, too. :)

  3. Oh that is a delightful addition! I thought at first it was a yellow baptista, but of course they’re relatives instead.

  4. Love this plant, thanks for showing the lovely yellow flower!


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson