Delphinium or Larkspur: What's in a name?

Delphinium or Larkspur: What’s in a name?

Delphiniums, or otherwise commonly known as Larkspurs, are beloved for their majestic spikes of vibrant flowers that grace gardens around the world. With a rich history and diverse range of species, delphiniums offer an array of colors, forms, and heights.

In this blog post, I want to explore the fascinating world of delphinium species and their classification within the Ranunculaceae family.

The name "delphinium" is derived from the Greek word "delphinion," which means "dolphin." The name was given to these plants due to the shape of their flower buds, which were believed to resemble the nose of a dolphin or the shape of a dolphin's body. It is thought that the association with dolphins originated from the belief in the Doctrine of Signatures, a concept popular in medieval times that suggested plants bore physical signs or "signatures" indicating their potential uses and medicinal properties. The doctrine proposed that plants, through their appearance or resemblance to certain body parts or objects, revealed their therapeutic properties.

The name "delphinium" reflects the historical perception of the flower buds resembling the graceful curves and forms associated with dolphins. Since dolphins were associated with the ocean and the element of water, the delphinium's dolphin-like shape was thought to signify its efficacy in treating ailments related to water or fluid imbalances in the body.

Specifically, the Doctrine of Signatures suggested that delphiniums could be beneficial for conditions such as fluid retention, edema, or disorders of the urinary system. The belief was that the resemblance to dolphins, creatures known for their agility and grace in water, signified the plant's ability to restore and balance the body's water-related functions.


Common Bottlenose Dolphin. Credit: NOAA Fisheries


The alternate name for delphiniums "larkspur" is derived from the resemblance of the flower's spur to the hind claw of a lark, a type of songbird. The elongated spur, which extends backward from the flower, is thought to resemble the spur or claw found on the leg of a lark. This similarity in appearance led to the common name "larkspur" being associated with plants of the Delphinium genus. The term "larkspur" also evokes images of delicate spires dancing in the breeze, much like the aerial displays of larks in the natural world.

The association of the name "larkspur" as an alternative name for delphinium is believed to have originated in medieval times. However, pinpointing the exact recorded instance of this association can be challenging due to the evolving nature of language and the gradual adoption of common names.

One of the earliest references to the name "larkspur" can be found in the herbal manuscript "Herbarius zu Teutsch," published in Germany in the late 15th century. This manuscript included illustrations and descriptions of various plants, including a flower referred to as "larkenspur" or "lerckenspur." It is possible that this early usage contributed to the association of the name "larkspur" with delphiniums.

Horned Lark: Credit:

Over time, the name "larkspur" gained popularity and became a common alternative name for delphiniums. This usage is observed in various botanical and horticultural references, including botanical texts and gardening literature from the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is worth noting that while "larkspur" is often used interchangeably with "delphinium," some botanical sources make distinctions between the two. In general, "delphinium" is used to refer to perennial species, while "larkspur" may encompass both annual and perennial varieties.

While the precise recorded instance of the first association between "larkspur" and delphiniums is challenging to identify, the name has become widely recognised and continues to be used to refer to these beautiful flowering plants.

Unopened delphinium bud: unnamed cross from our nursery






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