Sometimes in blue, sometimes in white, and sometimes in both blue and white, dwarf larkspur can be found blooming right now in local woodlands. This plant is among the showiest of the spring wildflowers, and it is a great reason to schedule some time outdoors soon.
Before dwarf larkspur comes into bloom, the first cluster of basal leaves are easy to recognize because of their distinctive shape. The leaves are deeply divided into narrow segments (see the photo, right) and each leaf can attain huge sizes– 3-5 inches in width!
In April and May, the plant sends up a stalk bearing a few alternate leaves. The stalk then terminates in a loose cluster of 5 to 20 flower buds. The unopened buds vaguely resemble the shape of a dolphin, hence the genus name, Delphinium. As noted earlier, the flower colors can range from blue to violet to white, although white is far less common.
The overall shape of the flower is hard to describe because of the petal and sepal count. Technically, it has 4 petals and 5 more sepals that resemble petals in color and radiate out from the center of the flower. One of the 5 sepals is modified to form the spur behind the flower and a white patch in the center of the flower, formed by the actual petals, leads pollinators to the nectar. As I said, this bilaterally-symmetrical flower is anatomically challenging :).
This is a true spring ephemeral in that it comes up fast and disappears quickly after bloom time. Despite it’s name, the plant can grow reasonably tall: from one to two feet in height. An even taller species will bloom later in the summer: Tall Larkspur ( D. exaltatum) can grow up to 5 feet in height!
Other common names for the plant include spring larkspur and staggerweed–a name that refers to the fact that the entire plant is poisonous if ingested, especially for cattle. Early uses for the wildflower itself included making blue dye and ink (check out the inky color of the flowers at right).
Loads of Delphinium can be found locally in Wildwood Park in Radford. See it growing along the hillside above the creek, mixed in dozens of other fabulous wildflowers.