Hark, Hark! The Larkspurs Bloom

The well-known line from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline — “Hark, hark! the lark at heaven’s gate sings” — came to mind when I encountered larkspur standing tall in an Austin County field on April 9. “Hark, hark! the larkspur at heaven’s gate blooms” seemed perfectly suited to the moment.

Although larkspurs (Delphinium carolinianum) have naturalized in nearly every area of Texas, I rarely see them. In 2019, I found a few at the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary in Hardin County, but it wasn’t until this spring that I came across more of the tall, dramatically blue flowers.

Commonly known as wild larkspur or Carolina larkspur, the plant — a member of the buttercup family — is native from Virginia to Missouri and southward to Florida and Texas. Found in an assortment of habitats, its sparsely-leaved flowering stalks typically contain six to fourteen blue-violet spurred flowers. Plants continue to grow upward after bloom, eventually reaching 18-24” tall; that height allowed these to stand above the phlox and bluebonnets surrounding them.

Each flower contains five petal-like sepals and four petals, with the upper sepal forming the long, backward projecting spur that gives the flower its common name; by the 1570s, the calyx and petals were imagined to resemble a lark’s hind claw. On the other hand, the Spanish name for the flower, Espuela de caballero, acknowleges its resemblance to a horseman’s spur.

The genus name Delphinium comes from the Greek delphis, or ‘dolphin,’ which some believe the bud resembles.

Larkspur’s dolphin-like bud
Blue larkspur and pink phlox
Blue larkspur fading to purple, with a bluebonnet background

The colors of D. carolinianum can vary, ranging from white to pale or dark blue. In 2020, I found a small group of white larkspur on an isolated road near Cost, Texas. Remarkably, when I returned to the same spot after our February freeze in 2021, I found the white flowers blooming once again.

This year, even more larkspur were blooming when I arrived. Their color has been so remarkably consistent I wondered if I might have found a subspecies. On the other hand, with no blue larkspur nearby to provide opportunities for cross-pollination, the pure white flowers may have a chance to keep multiplying.

One thing is certain. Whether blue or white, larkspur flowers are immensely attractive to native bees. The green-eyed beauty shown below, a long-horned bee tentatively identified as a member of the genus Melissodes, was doing his part to keep the larkspur colony thriving — and ready to be admired again in 2023.  

 

Comments always are welcome.

58 thoughts on “Hark, Hark! The Larkspurs Bloom

    1. The first time I saw one of those green-eyed bees, I was mesmerized: a fitting response to such eyes, I suppose. I’ve seen a few of them, and they seem to be slower moving than a lot of bees — a good thing for a photographer!

  1. It seems you went off on a lark photographing these blue and white flowers. That’s understandable if you don’t often come across them (as I also don’t often, though I did find a white-flowered one five days ago).

    We can take your Delphinium etymology back one step further: Greek delphīn-, the nautical mammal, was named for its perceived resemblance to a delphus, or ‘womb.’ You see it also in Philadelphia, where adelphós designated children of the same womb, i.e. brothers; that’s why Philadelphia holds itself out as the city of brotherly love.

    1. That’s an interesting etymological tidbit. Of all the reasons I’ve imagined for the meaning of ‘Philadelphia,’ I never thought of that, and never took the time to explore it further. As for the larkspur, now that I have a better sense of the conditions they prefer — and their timing — I might see more. They’re apparently an earlier bloomer than I’ve realized, perhaps because so many gardeners don’t begin posting about them until true summer for areas north of us.

  2. We had some larkspurs in the yard of the house my mom and dad built. I was just turned six when we moved in and my three-years-younger brother called them “larkspurts,” The name entered the family argot, and I have to pay attention not to call them that.

    1. Your family’s ‘larkspurts’ is amusing, and somehow appropriate. I just mentioned to someone this week that I spend some time calling onions ‘un-yums.’ I truly believed that was their name: probably until the word showed up in a spelling list at school.

  3. The flowers as well focussed as always – the bee stunning – and the text knowledgeable and informative.

    1. Thank you, Derrick. As pleased as I was with the color of the blue larkspur and the predictability of the white, the bees that were buzzing around — rather loudly, I might add — were a real plus.

  4. Ah, that Shakespeare! His only purpose in life was to torment poor high school students compelled to endure him!

    1. I’ll grant there was a certain amount of torment associated with our study of Shakespeare when I was in high school, but there were delights, too. In any event, I suspect he’d be pleased to know that, decades later, some of those students still can draw on his work for allusions.

    1. It sounds as though you’re still behind us when it comes to blooms. I keep finding more areas that are awash in flowers — Coreopsis, milkweed, Gaillardia, Mexican hat. I’m seeing more caterpillars, too; I may not know what species they all are, but they’re certainly chomping their way through the plants.

      1. Oh yes, just a few miles up the road makes a difference. I have friends down your way and their plants are always ahead of mine. Even Houston intercity can grow more “tropical” plants at just 25 miles away.

    1. Apparently they can be a little touchy in the garden — given to mildews and such — but I’m sure there are cultivars that have been developed that would do well. They are so beautiful, it would be worth the effort to get them to thrive: white, blue, or mixed.

  5. Oh, the larkspurs and the green-eyed bee are all so lovely! I’m imagining what it must be like to find them growing wild in a field – how wonderful!

    1. I certainly was surprised when I found them. I’ve read that in some parts of the country they can cover a field like our bluebonnets. Wouldn’t that be a sight!

        1. My gosh. Stunning hardly covers it! For some reason, I found myself thinking of Harvard’s glass flowers; both are examples of science and art combined.

  6. Amazing all the strange shapes and colors flowers come in – and all to attract a pollinator. In this case, an extra cool flower for an extra cool bee.

    1. I wonder constantly about the ways things have evolved. There’s no question that the interconnections are there: among flowers, insects — everything. When I learned that there are infrared colors that insects can see while we can’t, I stopped being surprised by anything!

  7. The white ones are lovely, of course, but I think I prefer the blue. Such a striking color! And green-eyed bees?? I never heard of such a thing. Not that I’m brave enough to get close to them either for photographing or merely for examining, ha!

    1. Well, yes: you’ve always shown a preference for the whole range of blues, and these are particularly beautiful. I do think those green eyes are great competition, though — they’re so big. Their size certainly makes them noticeable — I’m glad you enjoyed seeing them!

  8. Catching a bee in flight is a challenge and this is a nice one. I guess a white larkspur is akin to a white pink lady’s slipper. Or a white red trillium. There are so many surprises out there.

    1. It’s been my experience that pink or blue flowers are the ones that show up as white from time to time. I can’t remember ever seeing a white usually-orange-or-yellow flower. If one exists, I’d love to see it; that would be a surprise extraordinaire!

        1. Now that I see that, I remember seeing red and white phlox together. As a matter of fact, there’s a photo of them in my files, just waiting for me to get my act together and post them. Of course, red could be seen as a really, really dark pink — or pink as a faded red. So many questions!

  9. Wow… white larkspur?

    I remember seeing larkspur in various relative’s gardens or around old homesteads out in the country when I was young but I haven’t seen any in years.

    I suppose it is considered too old fashioned and out of date for most gardeners these days.

    Me? I rather like those old favorites.

    1. I still see people planting some of the flowers that were in my grandmother’s garden — like zinnias — but of course many of hers wouldn’t do well in the heat we have. Apparently there are Delphinium varieties that have been bred for longer bloom times, but these wild larkspur are the only ones I’ve seen down here.

      I visited a friend in the hill country this weekend, and they’re in such serious drought her garden looks terrible, but I had to grin at her love-in-a-mist. The flowers were small, but they still were popping up here and there. It’s going to be interesting to see what comes back once the rains come.

      We did a bit of roaming, and I’ll say this: the cacti are doing splendidly. There will be photos, of course.

    1. The first time I saw a green-eyed bee, I had no idea if it was a real species, or some sort of weird aberration. Well, they’re a species, and those green eyes get me every time. I hope I can find one of them just sitting around some day, so I can get a really detailed view of those eyes.

  10. An old friend of mine, Linda. From years of hiking through the forests of Northern California and walking out in my back yard in Oregon. Native to both. There was a giant version along one of my trek routes west of Lake Tahoe. I always made a point of going out of my way to visit. It was a beautiful specimen. Good to remember they are poison. So one doesn’t want to include it in a salad. On another note, Peggy and I visited a really fun petroglyph site in Zion yesterday. Peggy considered ti a Mother’s Day treat! Thanks for the suggestion. –Curt

    1. I’m glad Zion provided some fun for you and Peggy. I saw plenty of rock in the hill country this weekend, but no petroglyphs — unless grafitti on passing trains would count.

      I was surprised to learn about larkspurs’ toxicity. I had seen a mention or two, but then I came across a Texas ag site that detailed the effects on various animals, and thought, “Oh, my.” I’ll stick to adding yucca blooms to my salad, thank you very much.

      1. It’s not something ranchers want their cattle to chow down on, Linda.

        We’ve found two more petroglyph sites near where we are staying in Kanab that Peggy and I want to go see. One of the sites has nearby dinosaur tracks in the rock that the native Americans incorporated into their rock art. The only known example. One can only wonder what the natives thought about the tracks! –Curt

  11. Wonderful closeups, Linda. Larkspurs are prized in my mom’s and aunt’s gardens for their enduring color once pressed (my aunt sells pressed flower cards) but also for their delicate beauty in the garden, short-lived in our hot temperatures.

    1. Hot temperatures probably are the reason I’ve seen so few of these in the wild. “Being there” at just the right time is key for so many wildflowers, and it probably applies to these even more than to other species. Your aunt’s cards sound wonderful. I have a friend who used to make cards with tatted flowers and such on them; she loved the hobby, and produced some amazingly detailed bouquets. Still, the thought of pressed flowers is even more appealing.

  12. How I loved those patches of larkspur in Mother’s springtime gardens. Wild and rank, the flowers were of many hues, and I treasured them. Often times I would bring some inside, ‘Mother may we please put these in a vase?’ — but they dropped flowers fast -and were always more lovely where they best belonged – outside and part of nature.

    That opening image is such a clear pure blue. Stunning!

    1. That’s exactly what I’ve read about these: they’re short-lived in the gardens, and not the best vase flower in the world. But in bloom, standing tall among the other flowers, they’re real show-stoppers. I think this blue might be my favorite. I’m not fond of baby blue, powder blue, and such, but electric blue? Oh, yes!

  13. I love the photo of the bud that shows the spur. Fascinating shapes to this one, and I’m not sure if I’ve seen them around here yet. I’ll have to keep my eyes open. I also love how you caught the bee in flight. I’m always trying and hoping for that and it’s great when it all works out, whether by luck, skill or some happy combination of them both.

    1. Sometimes, it’s pure luck, as it was with this bee. I was intent on photographing the flowers when it flew into sight. Since it was a very windy day, I had my shutter set to deal with that, which worked rather well for the bee. I just kept shooting — and threw most of the images away!

      This is one of those flowers that has an elegant bud and a slightly frowzy appearance once it blooms. I was glad to find some plants that had the flowers spaced out a bit; some of the stems were just loaded with blooms, and those images didn’t come out so well. No matter; it was great to find them, and to have a couple of places to add to my “don’t forget to go there next year” list.

  14. Outstanding photographs!

    What a blast of blue!
    I would have been tempted to say something silly like “An albino Larkspur!” if I had stumbled across that white one.

    Alas, we have no native Larkspur in our area. Fortunately, we have plenty of bees! (Nice timing on that image!)
    Supposedly, Melissodes are common. Yeah. Right. They probably are, it’s just my timing that is faulty!

    1. I’d never seen a larkspur of any sort until a few years ago, but of course I’d read about them for years. When I first found one, I didn’t have a clue what it was, but I sure enough knew it was a pretty little thing. I love white flowers, but it’s probably a good thing that I found white larkspur first. When I came across those blue stems this year, I couldn’t believe the intensity of the color. That electric blue’s a show stopper: or at least a photographer stopper!

  15. That bee is certainly on a mission and arriving well prepared! I adore larkspur, one of my favourite flowers. Ours look a lot more fragile.xxx

    1. I found this fascinating article about your larkspurs, some in Canada (which look more like ours) and a highly detailed description of all the parts, with good photos. In case you ever need to explain the plant’s toxicity to someone, there’s a good section about the plant’s chemistry, too. I didn’t understand much of it at all, but it’s good to have the reference!

  16. I have rocket larkspur in my yard that reseed every year though the last couple of years they haven’t been as profuse and this year they are very late blooming. I suppose I need to throw some fresh seed out next November. The colors range from blue to purple to lavender to pink to white.

    1. I’d never heard of rocket larkspur. You probably know all this, but I thought the page was interesting. I especially liked the reason for its name; the plant apparently grows quickly, shooting up ‘like a rocket.’

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