Ancient History and the 20th Century Domestication
Lupins have a history in agriculture and as a food that traces back more than 2000 years. They were eaten by the early Egyptian and pre-Incan civilisations and promoted by Roman agriculturalists for their role in soil fertility.
Lupins were moved from their Mediterranean origins to northern Europe by Frederick the Great of Prussia in 1781 to improve the poor soils of northern Germany. By the 1860s the ‘garden yellow lupin’ was widespread across the acid sandy soils of the Baltic coastal plain for forage and green manuring.
The early 20th century saw the first steps taken to turn the lupin from a wild or semi-domesticated form into a modern crop plant. This work was pioneered by German scientists who screened thousands of lupin plants. Their goal was to cultivate a ‘sweet’ variety. The bitterness (due to a mixture of alkaloids) is undesirable in animal feed and human food, and had prevented lupin’s widespread use for these purposes. The successful development of lupin varieties with the necessary ‘sweet gene’ paved the way for greater adoption of lupins in Europe and subsequently in Australia, where more sweet lupins are produced than anywhere else in the world.