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16. Delphinium Linnaeus, Sp. Pl. 1: 530. 1753; Gen. Pl. ed 5, 236. 1754.

Larkspur, delphinium [Greek delphinion, derived from delphin, possibly for fancied resemblance of flowers of some species to classical sculptures of dolphins]

Michael J. Warnock

Herbs , perennial, from fasciculate roots or rhizomes. Leaves basal and/or cauline, petiolate, petioles gradually to abruptly shorter on distal leaves; basal leaves usually larger than cauline; cauline leaves alternate. Leaf blade deeply palmately divided, round to pentagonal or reniform, margins entire or lobes apically crenate or lacerate, lobes of basal blades wider and fewer than those of cauline blades. Inflorescences terminal, 2-100(-more)-flowered racemes (occasionally branched, thus technically panicles), 5-40 cm or more; bracts subtending inflorescence branches; pedicels present or absent; bracteoles (on pedicels) subopposite-subalternate, not forming involucre. Flowers bisexual, bilaterally symmetric; sepals not persistent in fruit, 5; upper sepal 1, spurred, 8-24 mm; lateral sepals 2, ± ovate to elliptic, 8-18 mm; lower sepals 2, similar to lateral sepals; upper petals 2, spurred, enclosed in upper sepal, nectary inside tip of spur; lower petals 2, plane, ± ovate, ± 2-lobed, clawed, 2-12 mm, nectary absent; stamens 25-40; filaments with base expanded; staminodes absent between stamens and pistils; pistils 3(-5), simple; ovules 8-20 per pistil; style present. Fruits follicles, aggregate, sessile, ± curved-cylindric, sides prominently veined or not; beak terminal, straight, 2-4 mm. Seeds dark brown to black (often appearing white because of air in seed coat cells), rectangular to pyramidal, often ± rough surfaced. x = 8.

Species ca. 300 (61 in the flora): n temperate and arctic subtropical and, in Eastern Hemisphere, tropical mountains (s of equator in Africa).

Three Eurasian species of Delphinium -- D . elatum Linnaeus, D . grandiflorum Linnaeus, and D . tatsienense Franchet--have been commonly cultivated in North America. Of the nonnative taxa, only D . elatum is sporadically naturalized, as far as is known. Isolating mechanisms in Delphinium appear to be primarily ecological, geographic, and/or temporal. Where these distinctions are disrupted, introgression often exists. Hybridization occurs regularly between certain taxa, particularly in areas of disturbance (e.g., roadcuts, drainage ditches, clearcuts). The more common and easily recognized hybrids are included in the key.

Many names have been misapplied in Delphinium . The few misapplied names mentioned in discussions below refer to relatively widespread problems.

Unless otherwise noted, the key and descriptions refer to fresh material. Some features may be significantly altered by pressing; they can, however, usually be determined with a certain amount of effort and experience.

In the descriptions, "base of cleft" refers to the point where the cleft or sinus reaches most deeply into the petal blade.


Ewan, J. 1945. A synopsis of the North American species of Delphinium. Univ. Colorado Stud., Ser. D, Phys. Sci. 2: 55-244. Lewis, H. and C. Epling. 1954. A taxonomic study of Californian delphiniums. Brittonia 8: 1-22. Taylor, R. J. 1960. The genus Delphinium in Wyoming. Univ. Wyoming Publ. 24: 9-21. Warnock, M. J. 1993. Delphinium. In: J. C. Hickman, ed. 1993. The Jepson Manual. Higher Plants of California. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London. Pp. 916-922. Warnock, M. J. 1995. A taxonomic conspectus of North American Delphinium. Phytologia 78(2): 73-101.

1 Lower petal blades less than 1/5 length of lateral sepals; sepals never red or yellow.   16a Sect. Elatopsis
+ Lower petal blades more than 1/5 length of lateral sepals; sepals blue, purple, white, red, or yellow.   16b Sect. Diedropetala

  • List of lower taxa


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