History of Delphiniums

There are many varieties and types of D. elatum in common cultivation as well as probably over 500 other species growing in the wild.

We include here a brief history of the origins of delphiniums of the elatum (tall) type, which is the plant usually thought of when the word "delphinium" is mentioned. This is the tall flowering type commonly seen in photographs of stately gardens.

dolphindelphbuds small
Delphinium buds with spurs, showing
their distinctive dolphin shape

Delphiniums received their name from the ancient Greeks who thought the shape of the flower bud with its spur, resembled that of a dolphin. There is further interesting discussion on these blogs here and here.

In England in Tudor times some of the species grown were referred to as "larkspur" apparently because the nectary (contained in the base of the top or nectar sepal) looked somewhat akin to a lark’s claw. Personally I think that the leaves of larkspur look more like the feet of a hawk or eagle. Many species certainly share a liking for the same habitat.

The modern delphinium is the result of hybridization of delphinium species from many widely varied parts of the world. Unknown enthusiasts crossed many species including, probably, D. elatum from the Swiss Alps, D. cheilanthum (dark blue, yellow bee) from Siberia, D. bruninianum from the Himalayas (purple, hooded) and D formosum from Armenia. From these crosses and probably many others the modern delphinium elatum type (resembling the original D.elatum in growth habit, form and foliage) has evolved.

From the middle of the 19th century, Kelway, Lemoine and others set about serious breeding greatly improving the number and quality of varieties available.

In England this work was continued early in the 20th century by Blackmore and Langdon producing named varieties of large well formed delphiniums of the style we know today. American breeders such as Vetterly & Reinelt (the latter of "Pacific Giant" fame) concentrated on seedlines rather than the named varieties popular in England, as it was more difficult to grow delphiniums as perennials in many parts of America. Charles Barber, another American developed the Hoodacre Whites, (white being more popular on that side of the Atlantic, blue in England) and Reinelt and Samuelson bred from D. cardinale (an American native) for shades of red, orange and pink. In Holland, Ruys made the cross between D. nudicaule (red) and an elatum type that produced Pink Sensation (D. Ruysii) when, after many years of trial a happy accident (see F Bishop, "The Delphinium", The Garden Book Club) doubled the number of chromosomes in a D. nudicaule seedling enabling it to be fertilised by an elatum hybrid.

Since the middle of this century many talented amateur and professional breeders have made significant contributions to the development of the delphinium. Probably the most notable of recent times being the English breeder, Duncan McGlashan

Should anyone have anything to add, refute or otherwise contribute, to this or any other page please feel free to email Terry  your suggestions.

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Dowdeswell's Delphiniums - Wanganui, New Zealand