DELPHINIUM (Ranunculaceae) LARKSPUR
Theis a “modern favourite” that was known to the Pharaohs and christened by the Ancient Greeks, who saw in its unopened buds a strange resemblance to a “little dolphin.” Our Elizabethan forefathers, according to Gerarde, noted the shape of its horned nectary and called it “Larkes heeles.” In Stuart days, the royal apothecary lists “Larkes heeles, larkes spurres, larkes toes or claws, and Munkeshoods.” Its relationship with Aconitum or Monkshood may explain the statement that the Romans used its powdered seeds as an insecticide.
Continental growers were the first to succeed in hybridisation and extensive cultivation, but in England forty years back, after long experiment, Mr. James Kelway introduced his “King of,” which was not only the greatest advance to date, but the forerunner of most of our modern Show varieties.
He also introduced “Persimmon,” still a favourite among the Belladonna group, dainty border plants with glorious blue flowers and short growth, much valued as cut flowers.
The old blue Belladonna had hitherto refused to seed, but in the nineties it was coaxed into temporary fertility by Mr. Gibson of Leeming Bar, and from the five plants then raised from seed, two of outstanding merit, “Grandiflora,” and “Mrs. Gibson” were cultivated. They have produced, through the efforts of English and Dutch plant-breeders, the majority of the Belladonna hybrids we possess.
Among Delphinium growers there has been a successful striving after size, and also the production of other colours than blue, and “Delphinium Blue” almost threatened to become a meaningless term, but latety there has been a welcome revival of the cult of the pure tint.
The Delphinium family is not all blue-flowered. For instance there are D. californicum, a 3 ft. border plant from California, vivid scarlet; and D. nudicaule, a scarlet Californian plant, adopted by us for the enrichment of the Rock Garden; D. Zalil, a buttercup yellow beauty found only on the slopes of Afghan’s mountains, and not yet acclimatised to our damp days, and double whiteof America’s “Odeur de Luxe” which proudly boast a sweet fragrance redolent of Roses and Spanish Broom.
The popular gardenare hybrids between several species such as D. datum, D. cheilanthum, and D. formosum.
For the growth of fine exhibition Delphiniums there are several essentials:
I. Sun and air. The drips from, and shade of trees are anathema. 2. Ample water supply. 3. Somefrom prevailing winds. 4. Deep digging before planting, ie. at least 3 ft. The tall plant needs to root deeply for anchorage as well as for sustenance. Even more important is the presence of moisture in the , which only deep digging will ensure. 5. Manuring. On light soil use preferably farmyard manure, or well-rotted leaves, spent hops, and bonemeal. The manure should be well mixed with the soil.
On heavy clay soil, digging must be accompanied by the addition of builders’ rubble at the bottom of the trench, to allow of better drainage, and coarse sand or grit should also be added with the manure, while the surface must be well limed.
In both cases beds should be prepared before Christmas, and planting should not begin till the end of January or beginning of February, not then if there are hard frosts at the time.
New plants should be bought from a reliable nursery. When planted they should have from 1- 1-½ in. of new growth. They can be planted whole 2 or 3 ft. apart, or if split carefully into two or three small plants, they need be only 12-in. Apart. As stems develop remove any weak ones. To keep off slugs, put a good spadeful of coal ashes, builders’ sand or mortar rubble close round the crown of the plant.
In May give a slight sprinkling of sulphate of ammonia. Mulch with hop or farmyard manure in summer to prevent the ground drying and cracking. In autumn clear away dead foliage and cover the crowns with sharp grit and builders’ rubble. Dress with lime in winter to prevent sourness of soil. Plants will give their best spikes the second year after planting.
When the flower spikes begin to form, feed in a circular trench round the plant, with liquid manure, to increase the size of the spikes, but do not let the liquid touch the crowns. Well soak with water first if the season is very dry, and repeat the soaking twice a week until rain comes. Each plant may send up a number of spikes—thin these out to 3 to 7 on a plant, according to its strength.
For exhibition each spike singly, but for ordinary garden decoration three or four strong stakes round the plant, and a thick string tied round and to each stick, to hold the spikes in place, is sufficient.
When the flowers have faded cut the stems down to the ground, as the plants will then send up fresh growths to flower in the garden , during late summer (when blue in the garden is very welcome).
The plants usually flower best in the second and third years, after j which quantity prevails and quality deteriorates.
When cutting for vases or exhibition do not cut too low in the hard woody stems, as the cut blooms cannot then absorb enough water. It is advisable to cut in a slanting line across the thick stalk, so as to provide a larger surface for absorption.
When growing for exhibition, drench the ground of the Delphinium border with water a few days before the show is to be held, not watering the flowers and leaves. Cut the flowers early before the sun is up. Cut the stems as long as possible, take off most of the leaves, and stand the spikes in deep water almost to the base of the flowers, but keep the flowers dry. If they have to travel far, pack each spike in tissue paper, and lay them side by side in a long box, such as an egg case. Then put in a second layer with their heads the other way, and repeat, but do not have so many layers as to crush the bottom flowers. On arrival unpack at once, and again stand the spikes in deep water while you prepare for staging.
Culture from Seed
It is quite simple to grow Delphiniums from seed, and for those who care to do so, the following hints may be useful:
Seed can be sown in a warm greenhouse in February or in the open garden later. For early sowing, prepare boxes of soil consisting of equal parts of loam, leaf-mould and sand. Lightly press down the soil. Water with a fine rose watering can and leave to stand for a few minutes. Scatter the seed thinly, and sprinkle over it a mixture of one-third loam, and two-thirds sand, until the seed is covered to its own thickness. Cover the boxes with glass. Shade with sheets of paper, and stand them in a hot-bed. Reverse the glass from time to time, and wipe off the drops of moisture. In 10-days the seedlings appear. The paper is then removed and the glass is raised by degrees. During the hours when the sun shines directly on the box give shade as required.
Water from below, by standing the box in a pan of water whose depth does not exceed that of the soil in the box. When the first pair of true leaves appear, remove the boxes to the cold frame, and give all air possible on suitable days. When the true leaves are 2 in. long, prick out the seedlings, 2 in. apart each way, into a frame filled with a similarto that in the seed boxes.
In April or May plant out into well-prepared rich soil, in. apart, and when well established, sprinkle the ground, but not the plants, with a little sulphate of ammonia.
To prevent mildew, spray with a solution of potassium sulphate, 1 oz. to a gallon of water, at least twice before the flowers appear.
Keep the soil fresh and free with the hoe and discard weak or unhealthy plants from time to time.
These good tempered plants neither require a select position, copious watering, feeding for show purposes, nor any other form of cossetting.
They can be indeed treated like the majority of the occupants of the herbaceous border. Provided with good garden soil, a few hazel twigs or pea sticks to splay out their stems, and with water in time of drought, they will produce a mass of flower over a long period without special feeding. Anywhere in the border suits them, except the extreme background, where they are hidden, or the front edge where even their 2 ft. 6 in. is rather too high. They are compact in habit and do not spread among the surrounding plants. Their leaves are finely cut, their stems slender and wiry, and petals usually sharply pointed, so that for home decoration they are more acceptable than their larger brethren, and for that reason alone should have a place in any garden.