April 6, 2019 By Nylah Denson In Garden Plants
According to some authorities, the first truly perennial delphinium to arrive in this country was brought from the Pyrenees. Mongolia is given as the source by others. In writings on things horticultural about 1640, mention is made of both single and double forms. Described as a strong-growing perennial of up to 6 feet (1.8 m) high, with pale blue-violet flowers, D. datum is considered to be the primary ancestor of popular hybrids like ‘Swanlake’ and ‘Daily Express’ grown in gardens today.
Most writers on the subject agree to D. datum as one parent, while suggesting by reasoned argument that the other species used in the hybridisation of delphiniums, as grown in modern gardens, are the result of work done initially by the nursery firm of Kelways which began specialist breeding of delphiniums in the mid 1800s. Fifty years or so later Black-more and Langdon, whose name is now virtually synonymous with delphiniums, also took an interest in the subject. American breeders, stimulated by the expressed interest from gardeners in the United States, also began experimental hybridisation, producing several fine varieties with fragrant flowers in the process.
How the smaller, repeat-flowering Belladonna hybrids like ‘La Maritime’ were generated is not known for certain. If looks are a guide, the neatly compact and pretty D. grandiflorum may lay some claim to parentage. In my experience, neither the species D. grandiflorum, nor the hybrids derived from it – ‘Blue Bees’, ‘Butterfly’, ‘Peace’, or ‘Azure Fairy’ are long-lived perennials, unless kept going by propagating new stock. They are, however, lovely to look at and well worth a little extra trouble even though no birth certificate is available.
In certain circumstances I have sown seed of the species in April and had the resulting plants flowering in late July. There is a species closely related to D. grandiflorum which originates in the Szechwan province of China – D. tatsienense by name. Over the years I have grown dozens of this dwarf delphinium from seed for planting in small borders or in a rock garden. The leaves are finely divided, the violet-blue flowers with cream centre appear in mid-summer. In a sheltered, well-drained bed this species makes a good short-lived perennial. Another species suited to rock garden cultivation is D. luteum from California. This has attractive cream-yellow flowers and stands 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 cm) high.
Amongst a genus with predominantly blue flowers, the appearance of two delphiniums, D. nudicaule, and D. cardinale with red-petalled blooms, is a refreshing piece of individualism. I have only grown D. cardinale as an annual, for the very simple reason that none of the seedlings survived the winter. It is not surprising that neither of the red-flowered species accept our climate, being natives of California. In the southern regions of that sunshine state I found D. cardinale growing up through poison oak on a sun-baked hillside. It grows in almost pure state, and the scenery forms a dramatic backcloth for a most spectacular species. D. nudicaule is a pygmy, growing only 10 inches (25 cm) high with flower spikes of orange-red. The shades vary – some are better than others. Given shelter and good drainage D. nudicaule should be capable of surviving the winter outdoors in the maritime gardens.
A hybrid between D. nudicaule and an unknown garden delphinium was achieved in the late 1920s after many attempts by a Dutch nurseryman. Only one seedling showed hybrid characteristics. The second generation of seedlings were of the Belladonna character with pink flowers, marketed under the cultivar name ‘Pink Sensation’. In a mild climate, with good cultivation in the form of a well-prepared, freely draining soil, ‘Pink Sensation’ will prove a moderately sound perennial. Those, like myself, who are conditioned to mistrust our climate, will keep a stock plant indoors just in case. It is a delightfully formed little delphinium for those who are prepared to make the effort needed to grow it successfully.
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