The Delphinium Flower
Delphinium is the genus name for a group of approximately three hundred flowering perrennials in the Ranunculaceae, or Buttercup family.
Also known as Larkspurs, the various members of this garden favorite are native to all parts of the northern hemisphere. The entire genus is highly toxic. Where the plant grows wild on rangelands, it is known to poison cattle.
Delphinium the scientific designation for the genus. The Latin word following it refers to one of the member species. D. occidentale, for instance, is the Sub-alpine Larkspur.
Delphinium comes from the Greek delphis, or delphin, which means "dolphin." The name likely refers to the delphinium flower's curving, dolphin-like shape. The common name "larkspur" refers to the sharp claws, or spurs, of the lark's foot.
Another legend says that the name originates from Delphi in ancient Greece, the famous city of the oracle. The flower was originally called "Delphinium Apollo" for the god of that city.
Members of the delphinium family are found everywhere above the equator and in some of the high mountain ranges of Africa.
- Three species under threat of extinction - Delphinium leucophaeum, D. oreganum, and D. pavonaceum - are known to grow wild only in the Willamette Valley of Oregon in the United States.
- Delphinium andersonii, or Anderson's Larkspur, is found wild only in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Great Basin region to the east of them.
- Delphinium exaltatum, or Tall Larkspur, is native to the Appalachian Mountains in eastern North America.
- Delphinium dasycaulon is one of the sub-species native to Africa, found in the wild primarily in Mozambique.
Description and Characteristics
Widely cultivated for its tall spikes of florets, delphinium cultivars range in size from four inches to well over six feet in height. Each plant terminates in a raceme containing many florets. The leaves of the plant are deeply divided, with anywhere from three to seven lobes that are palm-shaped.
A delphinium flower has five sepals. They form a hollow pouch or pocket with the characteristic "spur" at one end. Just inside the pouch are the plant's four true petals.
An unusual looking subspecies is Delphinium nuttallianum. One of the shorter members of the family, its flowers don't grow on a stalk but rather appear at the ends of widely spaced stems, or pedicels at the top of the plant stalk.
Blue delphiniums are the most well-known, but there are other colors, too. Delphinium cardinale is an unusual sub-species in that its flowers are always a deep, rich red. D. luteum, appearing wild only in California, has bright yellow blooms. D. elatum is a popular garden cultivar with brilliant white blooms.
- The birth flower for July, larkspur flowers symbolize an open heart and ardent attachment.
- Older traditions state that delphiniums offer protection against lightning, eye disease, and witches.
- A delphinium wedding bouquet is more suitable for a tabletop centerpiece than carried by the bride, but they remain popular flowers for weddings.
Cultivation and Care
Delphinium is easy to sow from seed, though they won't flower until their second year. The seeds should be sown about 3/4-inch apart in well-drained soil, barely dusted over with dirt, and kept damp.
Seedlings should sprout in two to three weeks. Transplant the seedlings into their own small pots when they've grown their first four true leaves. Give them full sunlight to avoid them gaining a "leggy" appearance. They can be placed out of doors, three feet apart, after the last hard freeze.
Larkspur in bloom likes plenty of water and fertilizer. Wet the leaves and flowers encourage mildew, so keep the flow of water as close to the ground as possible. Trim old or fading flower stalks, about a foot above the foliage, then water lightly for a few weeks afterward to let the plant rest. After new growth appears, cut away the old stem, re-fertilize, and water generously again.
Taller cultivars should be staked for support. Stakes should be about four feet tall and the plants tied loosely to them with twine in several places along the stalk.
Delphinium should be divided once every three years, preferably in spring.
Diseases and Pests
Overly damp conditions encourage the growth of bacterial leaf spot, powdery mildew, and other unsightly diseases. These can be treated with a sulfur spray over and under leaves and around stalks.
Be sure to thin the plants and provide well-drained soil so the problems do not recur. One exception to this is crown rot, which is characterized by the stems wilting from the top down. Plants with crown rot should be dug up and destroyed immediately.
Pests include caterpillars, aphids, mealybugs, slugs, nematodes, and beetles, all of which can be corrected with normal garden pesticides or preventatives.
All parts of these plants are poisonous and should not be ingested. Delphinium seeds, especially those from D. staphisagria, are said to kill head lice and in the topical treatment of scabies.
The juice from delphinium flowers, when combined with alum, provide blue ink.
Other Interesting Facts
- Delphinium is a short-lived perennial, with an average life-span of about three years.
- Belladonna is a member of the delphinium family.
- A tincture of the larkspur flower was once used to treat asthma and dropsy, but is not now recommended.
- White delphinium was once called "Elijah's Chariot."
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