April 4, 2019 By Moss Elvis In Garden Plants
Considering that there are few plants which have contributed more to the beauty of our gardens than delphiniums, there is very little information about the origins of hybrid forms. There are upward of two hundred species, some are perennial, others biennial, while the remainder including the popular larkspur are annual. The species grow wild in North America, Europe, Asia, North Africa, and one province of China – namely Szechwan. Though three species are listed as wild plants in the British Isles, all are considered to have been introduced, even the forking larkspur, Delphinium consolida.
Herbalists were well acquainted with the delphinium’s poisonous properties, the active principle delphinia was said to act on the nervous system. Delphinium seeds were used as a powerful purgative, as a cure for toothache, and, when mixed as a salve, to treat skin diseases. The main value of the powdered seed was its ability to destroy lice on both humans and animals, hence the popular name lousewort.
The shape of the flower-bud, particularly that of the annual species, suggested a comparison to a leaping dolphin. Though the plants, initially, enjoyed consideration more for their medicinal values than as garden decoration, for such a distinctive specimen as the delphinium there is, indeed, little more than casual reference. In the late sixteenth century note is made of a species, D. staphisagria, growing 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm) high with flowers blue and white. This was grown, if records are correct, only in Italian gardens for medicinal purposes, and is not important in plant breeding. On the other hand D. consolida enjoys a somewhat better press. Once the common larkspur of gardens, this is an attractive European annual 30 inches (75 cm) high with violet or blue flowers. Records in the sixteenth century relate that it was valued as a herb for dressing wounds. Indeed, the name consolida – to make firm – confirms this. An infusion of the herb in water was recommended as a cure for eye complaints.
Medicinal virtues apart, the introduction of another annual, D. ajacis, rocket larkspur, from the Mediterranean region provided scope for the hybridist, and it is largely from this species, rather than the common larkspur. Growing anything from i to 3 feet (30 to 90 cm) high, with double or single flowers, ranging in color from blue, lavender, rose, pink, and white, hybrid larkspurs are easily grown in most soils as hardy annuals.
Seed is best sown directly where the plants are to flower, in April or early May. I have sown seed under cloches in September to provide early spikes of bloom for indoor decoration. Curiously, within a few years of the introduction of this species late in the sixteenth century, writers of that period were describing it as a weed in cornfields – which speaks well for adaptability if nothing else.
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