November 11th, 2010
Password to Larkspur Lane

Zanthan Gardens larkspur

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.

Zanthan Gardens larkspurMy 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.
Zanthan Gardens larkspur
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.
Zanthan Gardens meadow
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.
Zanthan Gardens larkspur

by M Sinclair Stevens

26 Responses to post “Password to Larkspur Lane”

  1. From Hanna in Central Texas:

    Wow, what a show! I love the contrast of the larkspur against the prickly pear and the sago.

    The meadow is a stunner for a couple of weeks but the delight is fleeting. It quickly goes to seed as soon as temperatures broach the 90s. The design is a way of creating “seasons” in a climate where people often bemoan the lack of the traditional four seasons. — mss

  2. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    Yes, I think of your garden when I think of larkspur, since that’s what I saw blooming there last year. I love the tie in to the Nancy Drew mystery. When we associate flowers or plants with moods, events, mysteries, books, people, whatever, it gives them a special meaning, doesn’t it?

    The other Nancy Drew flower book is about lilacs and when I see it I think of you. Someday I’ll see (and smell) the lilacs. My garden is comprised of many passalongs that I associate with the garden friends who shared them with me. I try to passalong as many plants (mostly seeds) that I can and it gives me a thrill when people tell me my “babies” are blooming in their gardens. — mss

  3. From Cindy, MCOK:

    The larkspur look lush and lovely. They’re one of the plants that I consider a must have in spring. That shaded white and purple is unlike any I’ve seen before … it’s quite eye-catching!

    The purple-edged larkspur is one of experimental saved seeds. More on that experiment in my next post. I can save you some seeds from it if you want some. — mss

  4. From Pam/Digging:

    This makes me want to pick up a Nancy Drew again. Lovely larkspur too.

    I gave away my Nancy Drew books when I first married at 19. At 39, I regretted that decision and began collecting (specific editions) at Half Price books. I have both the original and the rewritten editions of ‘The Password to Larkspur Lane’. I really enjoy rereading them when I’m in a certain mood. — mss

  5. From Diana - Austin:

    Your fields of lovely larkspur are amazing. I only hope I can do justice to your seeds when mine grow up and fill in!

    I hope they do well for you. — mss

  6. From Davy in Louisiana:

    I love larkspur and plant them every year, plus have lots of free volunteers. I also consider them one of the must have plants for the cool season in the South.

    I see more and more larkspur in Austin every year as people realize how easy it is to grow in the South, *if* you plant them in the fall. The first year I planted them in the early spring like the seed packet said and got only four flowers! The next fall the self-sown ones sprouted on their own and then I knew that they must be planted in the fall here. — mss

  7. From Vertie:

    Did you climb up on your roof to get that shot? I love the rectangular beds, and am so happy to have some of your larkspur in my yard. It always makes me smile.

    Yes, I took the photos from the roof when I was up there cutting back some tree branches with the reciprocating saw. I can see more structure in my garden from above…makes me wish I had a two story house. — mss

  8. From our friend Ben in PA:

    How lovely, MSS! I adore larkspur and have never seen it look as exquisite as in your landscape. I’d vote for it as your signature plant!

    Thanks. I think every flower becomes my “favorite” when it’s in full bloom. — mss

  9. From M2:

    Nifty! Now I don’t know if I want to grow larkspur or read Nancy Drew next!

    When I think of your garden, I don’t think so much of a particular flower, but more of the color blue. (Despite the oxblood lilies!)

    I do like blue especially when combined with white. It looks so cool and refreshing. — mss

  10. From Annie in Austin:

    Why shouldn’t you have two Signature plants, MSS? You grow larkspur better than anyone else in Spring, and I’ve seen the extravagant beauty of the oxbloods spilling out in your fall garden.

    Do you think this Nancy Drew title influenced the future garden selections of other young readers? Little Women may have given me an early interest in pansies – and taught me their old-fashioned name of Hearts Ease.

    Growing larkspurs was so easy for me in Illinois, but chancy here where the only larkspur that sprouted from last year’s seed are non-blooming and 6″ tall. But even if my luck changes in future, don’t expect any photos taken from the roof. Yours are great!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    If you don’t get any more larkspur this year, I’ll save some seed for you this year. — mss

  11. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter:

    Wild, blowsy & free is my kind of planting. It looks so beautiful. Because of your posts about larkspur last year, I bought some seeds & sowed them in a couple of new beds. My fingers are crossed, hoping they sprout.

    BTW, I read all the Nancy Drew books as a kid. I just loved them.

    Good luck on the larkspur. I wouldn’t have any idea of how to grow them in Chicago. I spent too much time reading Nancy Drew books to the exclusion of other things as a child which is why I gave my books away. Now as an adult, I probably still do. They are like comforting junk food for the mind. — mss

  12. From Dawn:

    It’s impossible for me to see a larkspur without thinking of you, MSS. My favorite is now your Earl Grey. It’s so dark and luscious; a truly handsome flower. I must second what Annie said about your rooftop photos: They are great!

    I have not read the particular Nancy Drew book you mentioned. It sounds like a real keeper.

    When I was a young girl I loved my grandmother’s Gene Stratton-Porter books; “The Harvester”, “Girl of the Limberlost” and “Keeper of the Bees”, to name a few. They are all sitting here in my study now. I ate up the idealized, early 20th Century themes as well as the endless plant references in her novels. Somehow they were a great comfort to me once we moved from our farm & into the city after my father’s death.

    I’ll bet many of us have books that inspired our inate love of all things botanical. One thing is certain, I’m really grateful you picked up those larkspur seeds at Wildseed Farms.

    I will save you some seeds of the ‘Earl Grey’ larkspur. I’ve read ‘Girl of the Limberlost’ several times. It’s very unusual and interesting. I didn’t realize there were other books. ‘Keeper of the Bees’ sounds intriguing. — mss

  13. From Bonnie:

    I loved that Nancy Drew book. I still have my old books at my parents house in Dallas.

    Will you save some seeds for me this year, MSS? I didn’t have good luck with the larkspur seeds from last year, so I’ll try to get a lesson from you in planting them when I pick them up. I’m still developing my larkspur touch!

    Of course. There will be seeds a-plenty for anyone who wants some. I’ll be collecting them over the next month. My only trick is to sow them in the autumn where there’s dirt (not mulch or grass). — mss

  14. From Steve Mudge(Fort Worth):


    There is actually a Delphinium native to Texas: D. carolinianum–Prairie Larkspur–although its a perennial. I was thinking there should be some native larkspurs here since we had some in dry California and I had even seen some in the deep dark Central Desert of Baja California where they only get 3-4″ of rain a year–tough tribe of plants! Of course, down there you would only see them every three years or so, after sufficiently heavy rains.

    There are scores (maybe hundreds) of different delphiniums and larkspurs. I was going to talk about the botanical names a bit because they keep changing the name of the one I grow: Delphinium ajacis or Consolida ajacis or Consolida ambigua (which is what I call it). — mss

  15. From bill / prairie point:

    I think of larkspur too when I think about your garden. In my old garden I sowed a meadow mixture of wildflowers which I obtained from Wildseed Farms. After several years it was the larkspur and the mexican hat which continued to reseed themselves.

    I read a few Nancy Drew books when I was young but not that one.

    In addition to the original packet from Wildseed Farms, I bought a packet of ‘Earl Grey’ larkspur from Select Seeds. It has a weird mauve color. I thought I’d lost them all but I made a special planting of one I found last year and now I have quite a few. I used to have some double flowered ones, too, but they seemed to have all died out. — mss

  16. From Gail:

    Absolutely beautiful blues MSS. I’m so glad I’ve read all the comments; many of my questions have been answered…For instance, I’ve sowed the seeds on mulch not dirt. Btw, I love the word dirt.

    To get best results, seeds have to come in contact with the dirt. Mulch prevents weeds from sprouting because the ones beneath the mulch can’t get any sun and the ones on top of the mulch don’t touch the soil. Bark and hay mulches prevent wildflower seeds from sprouting too. However, if you mulch with decomposed granite sand, then you’ve created a wildflower seed heaven. –mss

  17. From ryan:

    I just realized that I forgot to grow some larkspur this year. Darn. I really like them for cut flowers.
    The mass planting is great. I thought I was serious planting about 60 blue linums together, but 400 larkspurs is in another class.

  18. From Lori, Austin TX:

    I really like the contrast of having a formal design in the front yard and an informal design in the backyard. Very metaphorical, really. Also, I really hope that you get more of that white larkspur with purple edges next year– it’s glorious!

    P.S. The larkspur you gave me are finally blooming, and the cilantro is about to go to seed. They’re thwarting my my many attempts to get a decent photograph, though.

  19. From Seasonal Wisdom:

    This is a simply lovely post, and I enjoyed the reference to Nancy Drew. Am a fan of both larkspurs and the young detective. Although I must say those flowers can be a bit invasive. Good thing they are so pretty too…

  20. From RyanM:

    Yep. I did larkspur for the first time this year and found that they are one of the few things the deer in my neighborhood don’t eat, which is a good thing since the deer ate many of my bluebonnets and all of my poppies that weren’t protected.

    I didn’t know that deer ate bluebonnets. They are poisonous to cattle. In that case, I’m glad that the larkspur didn’t interest them but I’m also surprised. Thanks for the input. I’ll put larkspur on my list of deer-resistant plants. — mss

  21. From chuck b. (San Francisco, CA):

    I also bought a packet of larkspur seedlings never having seen them growing, except on Annie in Austin’s blog. She said they’re more sturdy than Delphinium. I planted out a dozen seedlings or so about 8 months ago. Today they are 2′ tall and just now forming tiny, new buds. I can’t wait for the show.

    I’ll be looking forward to photos. — mss

  22. From Amy, Indiana:

    I recently purchased a Delphinium and am a bit concerned. It is a dwarf, “Blue Butterfly” they call it. It was in beautiful bloom when i bought it and stayed blooming for a few weeks. The blooms have since fallen off and it it turning black from the bottom up. I want to revive it but am at a loss for information on it. I have collected many seeds with hopes to start fresh but i don’t want to lose such a beauty. Do you have any suggestions on what i can do to save her?

  23. From Jenny Austin:

    I planted the larkspur seeds you gave me, today, but am saving some for the later spring. One thing I have learnt is that you can plant the seeds in Feb March and still get a later blooming. Just like in the late summer you can plant new seeds of zinnias and gomphrena and get a great show in the late October November.

  24. From Linda Lehmusvirta Austin Texas:

    Thanks for reminding me about your Nancy Drew inspiration! Now I’ve got to read it!

  25. From Tina Poe:

    The blues are stunning, now I want to read more about them!

  26. From Robin at Getting Grounded:

    I had a glorious display of your larkspur for the first time last year in my garden, MSS, and it lasted all the way until June! I was surprised, though, we were a bit more reasonable in our temperatures last spring and didn’t hit 100 until very late in the summer. I’m crossing my fingers that my potent display has self-seeded and that I’ll be seeing them again this year. I had SO many comments from neighbors about them, and they were one of my favorite things I planted ever.

    I often lament that the flowers we get here in Central Texas are often small – think Salvia – and very non-dramatic. Not so for these larkspur passalongs! Thanks again.

    I’m glad the larkspur worked out for you. I have had them flower into June in rainy years. I think what mostly prevents that in my yard is that the trees leaf out by April and it’s just too shady for them after that. When we get some rain, I bet you’ll see seedlings pop up everywhere. — mss