November 11th, 2010
Password to Larkspur Lane
Do you have a signature plant? I always thought oxblood lilies were mine but quite a few people have told me that when they think of Zanthan Gardens, they think of larkspur. I grow a lot of larkspur because it grows itself. If larkspur put out a resume, it could justifiably claim, “independent self-starter and good team player.” Larkspur is a rampant self-sower (hundreds of free plants every year) and yet it has no bad, weedy or invasive habits. It blooms and is gone.
I picked up a packet of larkspur from Wildseed Farms the first spring I began my meadow. I didn’t know anything about larkspur. I’m not sure I’d even seen it growing. Larkspur is native to Europe, not Texas so it’s not a plant you see in roadside wildflower plantings. It has a long taproot and so isn’t a good candidate for a six-pack at the big box store either. So why was I drawn to larkspur? Credit Nancy Drew.
My introduction to larkspur was as a child in one of my favorite Nancy Drew volumes, The Password to Larkspur Lane. Ever since, I’ve associated larkspur with old-fashioned, slightly run-down mansion grounds full of mystery and perhaps a little danger.
Larkspur is the distinguishing characteristic which enables Nancy to find the hideout in the woods where the bad guys carry out their evil plans. Thinking about it now, it’s a good thing that the mystery presented itself to Nancy at the right time of year or she never seen the larkspur or found the mansion.
Nancy, who is always best at anything she tries, is an avid gardener in this book. It begins with her in the garden, cutting larkspur for “the annual midsummer flower show held for charity each year at the estate of some wealthy River Heights resident.”
“Why do they call them larkspurs?” Tommy demanded.
“I don’t know, I must admit,” Mr. Drew replied. “Nancy is the gardener. Perhaps she can tell you.”
“Why, I don’t know either,” Nancy exclaimed. “They are also called delphiniums, and I know why that is their name. They were the favorite flowers used by the Greeks to decorate the altar of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Larkspur is a quaint name, but I can’t figure out why it was given the flowers.”
If only the 1932 Nancy Drew had had access to Wikipedia which explains, that the spur on the back of the flower resembles the spurred claw of the lark. It’s also called lark’s claw or knight’s spur.
What Nancy calls larkspur, however, seems to be delphiniums. Larkspur has a fine, feather leaf compared to delphinium. Delphinium is perennial; larkspur, annual. As such, larkspur is sometimes regarded as the poor cousin to delphinium. Cheap and easy-to-grow larkspur is the flower of poor cottagers while perennial delphinium graces the more stately houses.
This year I’ve experimented with how I use larkspur in the garden. Rather than just plant it in drifts in the meadow, I created a new bed (where the front lawn died last year). The beds are rectangular and formal and the only thing growing in them are larkspur. These larkspur were all grown from saved seeds and transplanted into rows. There are almost 400 plants. Despite the more formal setting, the larkspur manages to look blowsy, wild and free. And that’s what I love about it.
by M Sinclair Stevens in Austin, Texas