Zanthan Gardens larkspur

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.

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

photo: Zanthan Gardens larkspur
2010-04-29. The front yard has been given over completely to larkspur. In the foreground the pale pink rose ‘Blush Noisette’ is in full bloom. ‘New Dawn’ is also in full bloom rambling along the pickets beyond the pecan tree now fully leafed out.

May 3rd, 2010
Week 17: 4/23 – 4/29

“The flowers that bloom so sweetly wither and fall. Our human life, too, is fleeting. Today, again, I will cross the mountain pass of this uncertain world, and will not entertain shallow dreams or give away to drunkenness.” Iro no Ha. Translated by Francis G. Drohan. A Handbook of Japanese Usage. p. 90.

Dateline: 2010
The scent of honeysuckle and jasmine pervades the garden. The week began hot and sticky with a 90°F temperature recorded at the Bouldin station (4/23) and worse, overnight temperatures barely dipping below 70°F. Then a couple of fronts blew in bringing cooler temperatures but no rain. It was a beautiful week for spring cleanup.

I spent all week cutting back bluebonnets and cilantro. I let too much cilantro bolt and it dominated the meadow. As I cut it back, I reveal drifts of yellow (Engelmann daisy), pink (pink evening primrose), and blue and white (Love-in-a-Mist). The last I love best in white because at dusk it looks like little stars are floating in the meadow.

The oleander damaged in January’s freeze is producing new shoots from the ground. Some new shoots are also sprouting from old stems but I probably should cut them all the way to the ground so that it looks compact and bushy. The opuntia is putting out new pads but I don’t care if it never comes back. Both are a long way from flowering unlike this time last year.

The tomatoes are all setting fruit. The biggest and most prolific so far are ‘Jaune Flamme’. Both plants are waist high.

First flower: rose ‘Red Cascade’ (4/23), Trachelospermum jasminoides (4/25), Papaver somniferum ‘Lauren’s Grape’ (4/29), rose ‘Mermaid’ (4/29), amaryllis ‘Black Pearl’ (4/29).
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pruning roses

January 2nd, 2009
Unnatural Selection

Morticia Addams was my second role-model as a child, a fact that becomes more evident in April when the bluebonnets and larkspur come into flower and I run around the meadow busily snipping off flowers as soon as they open. All winter and early spring I cultivate and nurture my wildflower meadow waiting impatiently for the flowers to open, checking every day, poking at buds. Then. They open. And it’s off with their heads!

My meadow flowers are rampant self-sowers. In the larkspur, especially, there is wide variation. I’m notoriously selective. I save the seed of my favorites and throw out the rest. I hoped, over time, to develop a strain of larkspur that favored the exact conditions of my micro-climate and of the variations I like best.

I used to simply collect the seeds from the plants I liked and cut the ones I didn’t like out before they set seed. Someone laughed at me and said they were probably cross-pollinating anyway. So now I cut off the flowers of the ones less favored as soon as they open.

I always collect and label seed but nature typically has a head start on me so much of what sprouts the next year is from seed I didn’t sow. I do find repetition over the years which makes me think the seed does come true. But there is variation, too, like the strange green-flowered larkspur in 2008 (which unfortunately didn’t set seed).

larkspur seedlings

This year I decided to take a more scientific approach. I sowed the seed in marked rows and I’m transplanting each type together so that I can see if the seed comes true and to what extent.

I’ve always been interested in selective breeding. As gardeners we can pick and choose the characteristics of our open-pollinated plants, keeping those with the characteristics we favor: best flavor, disease-resistance, color, size, early blooming or late bolting. Indeed we reap what we sow. These last 20 years has seen an resurgence of interest over heirloom varieties. Someone (I can’t remember who) made a point about heirlooms that I found quite interesting: the ‘Persimmon’ tomato that I grow is not the ‘Persimmon’ tomato that Thomas Jefferson grew–although it may be a descendant. In each generation we select a few choice tomatoes for their seed and over the generations, they vary (not from mutation but from selection–gardeners and farmers are the intelligent designers). So even the same open-pollinated tomato variety from different sources may differ.

All the larkspur in my garden comes from two sources. The first was a packet from central Texas-based Wildseed Farms (which they label as Delphinium ajacis, rocket larkspur) which I bought at Barton Springs Nursery in 1994. The other was from Select Seeds (so appropriately named!) a selection named ‘Earl Grey‘. The ‘Earl Grey’ has never been silvery or slate grey but always a strange muddy mauve. I thought they’d died out of the garden completely but one or two comes up every year.

larkspur seedlings

I began transplanting my larkspur seedlings on New Year’s Eve….very, very late but it has been so dry and the meadow (and thankfully the weeds) are off to a slow start. Already I’m impatiently waiting to see what will develop.

Plant Profile: Consolida ambigua (annual larkspur)

January 10th, 2002
Consolida ambigua

I’ve spent the last couple of days weeding some beds and transplanting the self-sown larkspur in them. The larkspur plants are about 4 inches tall. I’ve read in several places that they are difficult to transplant but I have never found that to be true. They do have a long tap root, so you have to be careful when digging them out. They don’t come up in bare earth; they seem to prefer the mulched paths and beds. This habit suits me as it is easier to clear out a bed, add some wood ash and superphosphate and then replant them about eight inches apart than it is to let them seed in place and then thin them. And if you want them to grow to any decent height, you have to thin them.


For more information and photos, see the Zanthan Plant Profile.
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