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Sunday, June 26, 2011


I first noticed that they had all vanished along the creek bed near the road the first day of summer.  Farther up in the shadier parts of the forest, a few still linger, but their wrinkled, faded appearance suggests that they, too, will soon disappear.  Below the last faded flowers, fat pods are forming, swelling with the seeds of a spectacular display in the future.  The Delphinium flowers of the western Oregon woods belong to spring, however, and their season is now over.

I begin watching for Delphinium long before the buds have even formed.  The leaves begin pushing up in February, a welcome sign of spring after a long, dark, wet winter.  By April, the plants are beginning to form their buds, and the first flowers appear at the end of the month. 

Photo: J. A. Gervais

The flowers are a brilliant deep bluish-purple, a color so intense one friend remarked that it makes your teeth hurt.  They seem to glow, and I can only imagine what visual signal they send to bees and other insects that can see in the ultraviolet spectrum.  That incredible blue colors not only some of the petals but also the sepals, which form the star-like form of this flower and the long trailing spur that give this flower its common name, larkspur.  The true petals are small and held tight in the flower’s center.  The topmost petal arcs white in color, a bright flash in a field of midnight blue.

The genus Delphinium is large, with several hundred species currently recognized.  Individual plants growing in different places vary dramatically in size and form, and Delphinium species can hybridize with one another.  Keying them out often involves digging them up and studying their roots.  I’m pretty sure that the larkspurs growing along the shady creek banks in the forest above me are Delphinium trollifolium, but I haven’t dug one up to fully key it out.  I don’t need to know so much that I’m willing to murder a plant that each spring gives me such a marvelous gift.

Photo: J. A. Gervais

Hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies visit Delphinium flowers for their nectar.  The plants however contain an alkaloid compound that is highly toxic; although some insects use it as a host plant for their larvae, Delphinium has frequently been responsible for livestock poisoning.  Presumably, wild grazers learn to leave it alone.  So it grows locally in dense stands of stunning color, heralding in the growing season even when overcast and wet weather in western Oregon continues.  It may be raining, but there is still cause for celebration.

The flowers remind me of dark velvet stars, each with a comet’s tail trailing behind it as it leans out from the stem.  Or they might be little people, arms and legs outstretched in a joyous leap.  Flowers are structures evolved with the sole purpose of ensuring cross-pollination and the production of viable seeds.  Delphinium burst forth each spring to mark the renewal that arises only from the loss of those that came before.

Photo: J. A. Gervais

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