Ranunculaceae: Buttercup Family — Delphinium (Larkspur)

The buttercup family has a wide variety of plants, but most of them have leaves with 3 lobes, or in groups of 3.

Some larkspurs can be tricky to identify. The structure of the flower is not intuitive.  What look like petals are actually 5 sepals: upper sepal, 2 lateral sepals and 2 lower sepals.  The uppermost sepal extends back to cover the nectar-secreting spurs of the two upper petals, and forms the eponymous spur.  The 4 petals are in the center, much smaller, and usually the same color as the sepals.  The two lower petals are generally vertically aligned, and sometimes appear more or less joined to form a raised dome.  To identify the flower, it may be important to notice whether the lateral sepals are spreading (with the tips facing forward) or recurved (swept back).  Likewise, whether the fruits are straight (with only the tips curved out) or widely spreading.  Leaves vary widely, with lobes ranging from very narrow to broad.  Sometimes the leaves wither before flowering, sometimes not.

Coast / California Larkspur – Delphinium californicum subsp. californicum

Blooms:

Apr–June

Plant Height:

1–2 m

Flower Size:

Medium

Origin:

Native

Habitat:

Slopes in dense chaparral

Notes:

This is by far the tallest larkspur in the county.  Its leaves are variable, with 3–15 lobes, 5–60 mm wide with sharply-cut tips.  The large inflorescence has > 50 flowers.  Each flower has a 6–65 mm pedicel, and they are clearly separated on the stem, 5–25 mm apart.  The lavender sepals are forward pointing, and densely puberulent (covered with tiny hairs).  The spur is 7–14 mm long.  The flower is white, greenish-white, or pale lavender.

Scarlet Larkspur – Delphinium cardinale

Blooms:

Feb–July

Plant Height:

30–270 cm

Flower Size:

Large

Origin:

Native

Habitat:

Dry slopes, mainly south and southeastern county

Notes:

A tall, dramatic plant, one of only 2 red-flowered larkspurs in the county.  Spurs are straight, < 2.5 cm long, with upturned tips.  Leaves have 5–27 lobes, and have generally withered by blooming.  While individual blossoms are somewhat dissimilar to those of Red Larkspur (Delphinium nudicaule, see below), the appearance of the plant and its habitat are very different.  Another point of difference is the fruits, which are straight, spreading only at the tips.

Pale Western Larkspur – Delphinium hesperium subsp. pallescens

Blooms:

Mar–May

Plant Height:

40–80 cm

Flower Size:

Medium

Origin:

Native

Habitat:

Oak woodlands on dry slopes

Notes:

This species is found in two different forms.  The pictures show subspecies pallescens, featuring a pale color, which can be white, pinkish or light blue.  The dark blue form (not shown) is subsp. hesperium.  Leaves are divided into 3–14 narrow lobes, 2–8 mm wide.  Flowers are generally fewer than 30, with pedicels separated on the stem by at least 8 mm. Lateral sepals are spreading.  Lower petals are in rounded domes, hairier on the front than the back.  Fruits are more or less straight.

Hutchinson’s Larkspur – Delphinium hutchinsoniae

Blooms:

Apr–May

Plant Height:

25–100 cm

Flower Size:

Medium

Origin:

Native

Rare or endangered?

Yes -1B.2

Habitat:

Coastal prairie, chaparral

Notes:

This rare larkspur is known only from coastal areas in Monterey County.  The lateral sepals are a little larger than those of Zigzag or Parry’s Larkspur (Delphinium patens or parryi, see below).  These sepals are 12–24 mm, compared to 9–10 mm for Zigzag.  The two upper petals are usually white.  The lower petals have hairs on the blades, but not the edges.  The stems are often branched.  The tip of the spur is typically downcurved by > 3 mm.  Leaves are 5–17 lobed.

Red Larkspur – Delphinium nudicaule

Blooms:

Mar–June

Plant Height:

15–50 cm

Flower Size:

Large

Origin:

Native

Habitat:

Moist shady places in woods or rocky slopes

Notes:

This is one of only 2 red-flowered larkspurs in the county.  It is less dramatic than Scarlet Larkspur (Delphinium cardinale, see above), and found in very different habitats.  Spurs are straight, < 3.5 cm long, slightly wavy with downturned tips.  Leaves are round to pentagonal, with 3–12 broad lobes, and are generally still visible at blooming.  The fruits are widely spreading, unlike the straight fruits of Scarlet Larkspur.

Parry’s Larkspur – Delphinium parryi subsp. parryi

Blooms:

Apr–June

Plant Height:

15–80 cm

Flower Size:

Medium

Origin:

Native

Habitat:

Sandy soils, inland

Notes:

This common larkspur has a spur 8–15 mm long, and usually downcurved at the tip.  The lower petals are equally hairy on both surfaces.  It is sometimes found near Zigzag Larkspur (Delphinium patens, see below), and can be confused with it.  Besides blooming somewhat later than Zigzag, there are several noticeable differences.  First, Parry’s Larkspur has lateral sepals that are spreading with forward pointing tips.  Second, its leaves are divided into narrow, almost thread-like lobes that are generally withered by blooming time.  Third, its fruits are more or less straight.

Zigzag / Spreading Larkspur – Delphinium patens subsp. patens

Blooms:

Mar–June

Plant Height:

10–90 cm

Flower Size:

Medium

Origin:

Native

Habitat:

Mostly coastal

Notes:

This larkspur is common near the coast.  Its lower petals are noticeably bi-lobed, and generally hairier on the upper surfaces.  It is sometimes found near Parry’s Larkspur (Delphinium patens, see above) and may be confused with it.  Besides blooming a little earlier than Parry’s, there are some other noticeable differences.  First, Zigzag Larkspur has lateral sepals that are recurved (folded slightly back).  Second, its leaves are not generally withered before blooming and are divided into 3–5 comparatively broad lobes.  Third, its fruits are noticeably spreading.

Royal Larkspur – Delphinium variegatum subsp. variegatum

Blooms:

Mar–May

Plant Height:

< 50 cm

Flower Size:

Large

Origin:

Native

Habitat:

Open grassy places, south county

Notes:

This is somewhat similar to Hutchinson’s Larkspur (Delphinium hutchinsoniae, see above) in appearance, but is found only in the southern part of the county, commonly in Fort Hunter Liggett.  The color of the sepals is subtly different, normally royal blue rather than purplish-blue, plus they are a little smaller (12–17 mm as against 12–24 mm).  The tip of the spur may be straight or slightly downcurved.  The lower petals have sparse marginal hairs, while those of Hutchinson’s Larkspur have hairs only on the blades.  The number of flowers on the main axis is generally smaller (< 10 as against 7–20).  In both species, the fruits are straight, and at least the cauline leaves are still present at flowering.