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.


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 herehere and by Ivona Šuchmannová 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. A extensive species list for north America is available at NRCS plant database for Europe at the Czech plant library.

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.

Delphinium types

Confusion Reigns

There is a fantastic amount of confusion about the various species of delphinium and the origins of today's hybrids. Please see this article (first page of thesis) by way of explanation. This confusion is such that delphinium hybrids resembling the Pacific Giant types often referred to as D. culturum (in culture) as the real origins are extremely complex and probably unknown. To help clear this confusion the following delphinium groups are generally available in commerce:

Delphinium cultorum group (previously known as elatum group): These plants have complex flowers and range in height from about 2 metres to about 1 metre. and include:
  • Various Pacific Giants Series (This includes Round Table, Dwarf Pacific and all the varieties in those series, eg Black Knight, Galahad)
  • New Millennium Series
  • Magic Fountain Series
  • And a host of others
See this link to a google search for images of delphinium Magic Fountains

Delphinium grandiflorum group: These are generally short, well branched plants suitable for drier areas such as the rock garden. Sometimes called D chinensis and include:
  • Blauer Zwerg
  • Blue Butterfly
  • Blue Pygmy
See this link to a google search for images of delphinium blue butterfly

Delphinium belladonna group: These are crosses resulting from D. elatum crossed with D. grandiflorum. They are generally about 1m to 1.5m tall, are well branched and have simple flowers. They include:
  • Connecticut Yankees
  • Cliveden Beauty
  • Various others

See this link for a google search for images of delphinium belladonna.

Names of delphiniums in different languages

French - pied-d'alouette

Spainish - espuela de caballero

Russian - дельфиниум

Czech - rod stračka

German - rittersporn and larkspur

Ukrainian - дельфініум

Italian - delfinio

Japanese - デルフィニウム

Korean - 델피 늄

Swedish - riddarsporre

Chinese - 飞燕 and 飛燕