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.
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