The month of July’s flower is the larkspur. It can be a little confusing, because the larkspur shares its common name with the delphinium, its close relative. Both are in the Ranunculaceae family (buttercup). And both are named for the shape of their flowers. The spur of larkspur looks like a bird’s claw, hence its name larkspur, lark’s heel, and lark’s claw. Its more delicate foliage also differentiates it from the delphinium. The scientific name is taken from the shape of the bud, which is thought to look like a (rather fat) dolphin. Other sources connect it to the Oracle at Delphi.
The delphinium name comes to us from the legend of Ajax, one of the heroes of Homer’s poems. According to Greek legend, Achilles’ mother requested that her son’s armor be given to the most heroic Greek warrior during the Battle of Troy. To the dismay of the great warrior Ajax, the armor was awarded to Ulysses. In despair, Ajax threw himself on his sword, and small blue flowers sprang from the blood that fell to the ground. Upon their leaves were the first two letters of his name “Ai” which is also Greek for “woe.” The flowers were thus given the Latin name – Delphinium ajacis.
But the larkspur has other, more cheerful stories associated with it. For instance, pioneers crossing the North American prairies in the mid-1800s found it growing wild. With its tall, slender flowers, the meadows full of white, blue, purple, red and lavender were a heartening sight, as long as the cattle didn’t graze upon the flowers, of course!
According to one legend, the Crane boys, a pair of mischievous youths hoping to strike it rich during the Gold Rush of 1849, left their home in the Midwest and headed for the California coast. Throughout the journey across the plains, the boys encountered countless attacks from poisonous snakes and other deadly species. Finally, they were saved when they made a circle every night of tall larkspur, which protected them for the rest of their journey.
All parts of the plant contain an alkaloid delphinine and are very poisonous, causing vomiting when eaten, and death in larger amounts. But in tiny amounts, extracts of the plant have been used in herbal medicine.
Gerard’s Herbal (1597) reports that some (although not he himself) believed that drinking the seed of larkspur would help against the stings of scorpions, and that other poisonous animals could not move when covered by the herb. The famous Mrs. Grieve’s Herbal (1931) reports that the poisonous seeds were effective combating lice and their nits in the hair. And a tincture is sometimes used to treat asthma and dropsy.
The plant was associated with Saint Odile, the 4th century patroness of good eyesight and whose feast day is July 18. So it has been used to ward against and treat eye diseases. It is also one of the herbs used on the feast of St. John (Summer Solstice) to protect against lightning. And in Transylvania, it was used to keep Witches out of the stables.
Delphiniums signify an open heart and ardent attachment; larkspurs generally symbolize lightness and swiftness.
Tomorrow, we’ll begin considering one of the most powerful magical flowers, the Queen of the Garden, in fact. See you then!