Delphiniums for England & Wales
Holly Cookland Wilkins
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In Praise of Larkspurs

The Annual ‘Delphinium’

The following article appeared in the Society's Autumn Bulletin in 2007 and, in response to comments received on various showstands, it is reproduced here together with pictorial illustration which was not included in 2007. Responses, please, to R D Beauchamp.

So much that was in vogue in the 1950s and early ‘60s seems now to be either forgotten or to be horticulturally incorrect in the eyes of the delphinium world. That should most certainly not be so. I suspect the annual ‘Delphinium’ is out of vogue because it is an annual and, to the ‘purist’, is thereby beneath notice. Way back in my early horticultural days, I remember the attitudes expressed when I produced various annuals, including annual ‘Delphinium’, on the show bench. Condemnation reigned supreme when finally I produced vases of Shirley Poppies and, to the dismay of my detractors, they lasted throughout the show and beyond. They lasted because I used the simple expedient of singeing the ends of the stems in a gas flame. The term ‘Larkspur’ is a source of confusion in meaning. It is certainly the early English term and applied then to what were essentially species, long before the hybridisers started working on them. The term has followed the exploration of the genus Delphinium to include, for example, D. nudicaule and D. cardinale. The larkspur in England, so called well before the time of Elizabeth I, is a native of our shores and in time became known as Delphinium ajacis. It was a definite annual and was known under the diminutive ‘Rocket Larkspur’. It is still occasionally found wild in Britain as is another annual species which became known as Delphinium consolida, the ‘Branching Larkspur’. It has to be remembered that the great Linnaeus, born in 1707, was responsible for the binomial system of naming plants and animals and he thereby gave taxonomic form to plant classification. As Angus Barber wrote in 1961, “Delphinium ajacis is undoubtedly the forebear of the Hyacinth-flowered or Rocket Larkspurs, once very popular but now rarely seen in our gardens. The Branching Larkspurs, developed in the main from Delphinium consolida are, however, extremely popular, and most of the seed sold to-day is in varieties or mixtures of this type.” The Rocket Larkspurs were a speciality of German seed firms established in the Erfurt and Quedlinburg areas prior to 1939.

The inevitable disruption followed and many of the strains deriving from D. ajacis were lost entirely and by 1961 only a few mixed strains grown in Holland and France had survived. The Rockets are characterised by single spikes of double flowers which flower at least three weeks earlier than the D. consolida (branching) types. The tall strains of Rockets come (or came) in shades of light and dark blue, pink and white. A feature of the larkspurs which I grew in the 1940s was the appearance of true red flowers among the considerable variety of colours. The Branching Larkspurs were considered by seedsmen and market growers of the time as being far more promising than the Rockets so breeding and selection gave rise to Stock Flowered Larkspurs, Giant Imperial types, and so forth. The Imperials soon held sway because they proved to be “splendid garden plants”. Two new strains of Giant Imperial types were developed in America and came to be known as the Regal and Supreme types. Such was the record up to 1961 but even then it was recognised that high temperatures do not favour seed germination – as indeed is the case with the Elatum Hybrids.

In the 1940s it was recognised that if larkspur seed was sown in the open ground in the late Summer then plants would be produced which would over-winter and, in the following year, produce flower spikes of far superior quality t those grown from seed sown in the Spring. At the present time, the flower colour range includes colours still being sought in our Elatum Hybrids. How should we define larkspurs in 2007? The generic name Consolida, deriving from D. consolida, refers to the annual ‘delphiniums’. Consolida is a close congener of Delphinium and there are now recognised some 40 species, including Consolida ajacis and C. orientalis. C. ambigua is considered by some to be a synonym for C. ajacis, and it appears in Unwins catalogue as ‘Unwins choice mixed’. There are differences between Delphinium and Consolida other than the annual nature of Consolida. There are, of course, annual Delphiniums. One is the fact that the ovary of Delphinium is divided into 3 or 4 follicles whereas that of Consolida is not so divided. Perhaps it would be a useful development to reserve the term ‘larkspur’ for Consolida. Reading through present day seedsmen’s catalogues will still produce puzzles for those wishing to define ‘larkspur’ but all such puzzles derive from the confusion of a plethora of loosely used terms and definitions of the past. Perhaps the DNA profilers will move in to produce scientifically reliable definitions for the future, if they have not already done so commercially in breeding programmes.