Sunday, May 22, 2016

Plant Story--the Dramatic Larkspurs

You hike the trail casually glancing into the brush and then, ooh! a bright blue spike of flowers catches the eye!  Larkspur!

larkspur, seen in Colorado
For me, larkspurs are one of the wildflower treats of spring.  Common enough that you see them, not common enough that you go "oh, just a larkspur."

Colorado larkspur
The larkspur name goes back to Europe, where Shakespeare called them lark's heel and they were also known as lark's claw and knight's spur. Clearly the flower shape (clearer in diagram than photos: link) reminded people of bird feet, particularly the one toe that goes backward (bird feet pictures). A good mental picture of the flower shape will let you easily recognize a larkspur when you see one.

The scientific name is Delphinium. Delphinion means little dolphin in Greek, Europeans having seen dolphins in the flowers--especially the buds. Since Delphinium was the name for them in vernacular Latin (endings vary between Latin and Greek), Linnaeus chose it for the scientific name.

Both the bird-foot image of the English name and the dolphin image of the Latin name point to ways to recognize larkspurs.

cultivated larkspur
There are almost 300 species of Delphinium, native across the Northern Hemisphere and dropping south into mountains in Africa. They are in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. Generally plants in the buttercup family bloom in the early spring and are not safe to eat. Larkspurs, whether from Europe or North America, are not just unsafe to eat but poisonous.

In the western United States, most springs a few cattle die from eating larkspurs. The plant causes nausea, vomitting, abdominal pain and muscular spasms. Normal functions stop, which means cardiac arrest or lung failure will cause death. Human poisoning is rare. The poison websites suggest that that is because the plant doesn't look like anything people ordinarily eat. If you don't ingest it, you won't be poisoned.

Europeans have used the larkspurs as poisons for pests, particularly as an external treatment for body lice, for millennia. Ground seeds were sprinkled on as a powder or applied in a lotion. link

Compared to the number of species in North America (61), Native Americans didn't make much use of larkspurs as medicines, the most common use being to cause vomiting. However, tribes from the Navajo to the Karuk produced a blue dye from the flowers.

Europeans have found them attractive as garden flowers since Shakespeare's time. Today the horticulture trade tends to call the perennial species it sells delphiniums, using the scientific name as the English name, and to refer to annual species as larkspurs. This is partly because taxonomic revisions have moved the European annual species to the genus Consolida, so that in Europe both the genus Delphinium (perennials) and the genus Consolida (annuals) have larkspur as a traditional common name. When looking at native American species, there is no particular convention, call them larkspurs or delphiniums as you please.

larkspur, western Nebraska
Larkspur, western Nebraska
The USDA Plants list gives 61 species of Delphinium native to the United States and four distinctive hybrids. That is why I am hedging on species names. In many places, such as the Front Range of Colorado, there are several similar larkspur species. A casual glance won't tell you which species it is. (Unless you are a larkspur expert, of course).

Flower colors range from purple to blue to white and pink, but many areas have several species that are the same color, and other species come in multiple colors, making color only a little help in identification. But the distinctive flower means you can recognize that it is a larkspur.


And the variety of colors definitely add to the joys of seeing or growing them.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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Delphinium link 
Durant, Mary. 1976. Who Named the Daisy, Who Named the Rose? New York: Congdon and Weed Inc. Tall Larkspur, link and Low Larkspur link  Accessed March 3, 2016
Moerman, D. E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland OR: Timber Press. 
Right Larkspur poisoning link  Accessed March 3, 2016
Thomas, H. S. 2000. Larkspur Alert . Beef Times link

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