Sunday, March 19, 2017

Plant Story--Stavesacre and Larkspurs in Europe

Delphinium, larkspur
Stavesacre. Would you think "larkspur"?

The larkspurs (Delphinium species) of North America are tall plants with curiously-shaped flowers in purple, blue or white. (Earlier blog, featuring American larkspurs link)

It was clear when researching American larkspurs that there were similar European plants because, well, the name larkspur is based on the flower looking like a lark's foot, but North America doesn't have a common bird we call a lark. The lark of England, more formally the Eurasian skylark Alauda arvensis, was a well-known and conspicuous bird of farmlands. Its numbers are drastically down recently and farmlands have retreated so perhaps it is not as well known as in the past link

In Sonnet 29, Shakespeare wrote the memorable lines

The lark at break of day arising 
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate 

This refers to the amazing song the male sings while flying over its territory (see video, be a bit patient). Most of the time, however the skylark forages on the ground, much like an American robin, so seeing the bird's strong rear toe in the plant's nectar-bearing spur is a reasonable allusion. 

Delphinium, larkspur
cultivated larkspur
Knowing the name came from Europoe, I expected to find a wealth of information about larkspurs in English sources. I looked up larkspur in Mrs. Grieve's Herbal (link) and Culpepers' Complete Herbal (link) and didn't find much.


But one of the common names I had ignored was stavesacre.


And there it was, in both books, Delphinium staphisagria, known as stavesacre or lousewort (and not called larkspur). (photo, story: I haven't taken my own photo.) Hairy and pale but definitely a larkspur.

Stavesacre seems to be its most-used common name. The odd name comes from turning the name in Roman times, staphis agria, literally wild raisin or wild grape, into an English common name. The Romans apparently thought the leaves looked like grape leaves. Diosorides (64 AD) wrote "[stavesacre] hath leaves as of ye wild vine jagged" (p. 549; vine originally meant grape; see Wikipedia picture). Under the name stavesacre you can find it in the herbal works of Europe from Pliny and Dioscorides, first century AD, through the Middle Ages to Gerard and Culpeper about 1600 to Grieve in 1931. Stavesacre is the most famous of the European larkspurs.

Stavesacre is an annual, sometimes a biennial, of southern Europe. It is usually less than three feet high, which makes it a normal-sized larkspur, and striking nonetheless.

There were about 300 species in the genus Delphinium before botanists looked at them critically using DNA. The result of that analysis was parcelling out many species into genera with different names. Only a few still have the scientific name Delphinium. DNA comparisons showed stavesacre, then known as Delphinium staphisagria, was quite different from other Delphinium species, in fact, more like monkshood, Aconitum, link the famous poison, than the rest of the larkspurs. Consequently
stavesacre (with two other species) was put into a new genus named after it, Staphisagria.  Botanical rules for names prohibit the same word twice (zoologists do it though), so stavesacre couldn't be Staphisagria staphisagria, but became Staphisagria macrosperma. (At the time I looked, March 11, 2017, the Wikipedia entry on Delphinium had the explanation right but the new name wrong.) This revision was proposed in 2011. As of 2017, very few books and websites have picked up the change.

Delphinium, larkspur

All the species of the big old genus Delphinium are poisonous, including stavesacre. Europeans have appreciated stavesacre for its toxicity for at least 2,000 years. Both Pliny and Dioscorides recommend using great care if consumed. Six hundred years later, Gerard echoed that: "The seeds hereof are perillous to be taken inwardly without good is so dangerous that many times death ensueth upon the taking of it." Consequently it was very limitedly used as an internal medicine. Some skin eruptions were carefully treated with a solution of stavesacre. Today there are safer alternatives.

Stavesacre was a very important plant in Europe over the last 2000 years however: it was used to kill external parasites. That is why it was sometimes called lousewort or lice-bane. There are several other species called louseworts, for example most Pedicularis species link, stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus link), and yellow rattle (Rhinanthus crista-galli link). "Wort" is an old word for plant, and louse an external parasite, so the lousewort is as much a discription as a name.

Powdered seeds of stavesacre were dusted on to kill lice. Gerard wrote "...the seed mingled with oyl or grease, driveth away lice from the hed, beard and all other parts of the body, and cureth all scurvy itch and manginesse....The same tempered with vineger is good to be rubbed upon lousie apparell, to destroy and drive away Lice." (p. 495) Stavesacre did not grow well in northern Europe but the small hard seeds were easily transported and lice and other vermin were widespead, so people all over Europe knew the virtues of stavesacre as a lousewort. Today, stavesacre is rarely sold as a garden plant and in its native range, has become quite rare.

In addition to stavesacre, there are several other larkspurs in Europe, some still in the genus Delphinium, most now renamed Consolida. It is probably one of those other species that appears in the famous manuscript Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Tres Riches Heures was a brilliantly illustrated book of hours (book of prayers) produced in France in the early 1400s (about the book). One page tells the story of Jesus turning a few loaves and fish into food enough to feed five thousand. The illustrator surrounded the page with brilliant larkspurs, which, because the buds were seen as looking like dolphins, the larkspurs represented fishes (link).

In my copy of Kate Greenaway's Language of Flowers, relating the Victorian conceit of ascribing a meaning to flowers as gifts or in art, larkspurs generally meant levity and lightness, the purple larkspurs hautiness, pink larkspurs fickleness...and stavesacre doesn't occur at all.

Larkspurs, the members of the former genus Delphinium, are popular garden plants all over the world, with single- and double-petaled flowers, in colors from white to pink to blue to deep purple. They are handsome plants!

Comments and corrections welcome.

Fisher, C. 2013. he medieval flower book. The British Library, London.
Gerard, J. 1975. The herbal. Originally published 1633. Dover Publications, New York.  (1599 edition online link If you search, spell it staues-acre.)
Greenaway, K. 1979. Language of flowers. Originally published 1884. Avenel Books, New York.
Jabbour, F. and S. S. Renner. 2011. Resurrection of the genus Staphisagria J. Hill, sister to all the other Delphinieae (Ranunculaceae). PhytoKeys 7: 21-26. 
Oxford English Dictionary. "lousewort, n.""louse, n.". OED Online. December 2016. Oxford University Press. (accessed March 06, 2017).

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist


  1. Beautifully written blog. Worth spending time and reading it. Will be sharing it among my circle. Thanks for the post

  2. Just found your blog this morning--enjoyed it, thank you!