Scarlet Delphinium

The wildflowers are finally blooming in profusion. Red seemed to be the predominant blossom color when I was hiking along the Lower Pit River (Shasta County CA) recently. In addition to the scarlet fritillary that I mentioned in my previous post, another “scarlet ” that I found on the same walk was the scarlet delphinium (Delphinium nudicale).

Native to and restricted in range to California and Oregon, this perennial is also commonly called a canyon delphinium, red larkspur or canyon larkspur. Scarlet delphinium plants prefer lightly shaded woods and moist rocky slopes and will grow to 6,500 feet.

Since most members of the Delphinium genus are blue or purple, this bright red delphinium is not typical. Because of its bright color, the scarlet delphinium is a hummingbird favorite. Several scientific articles explore how this member of the buttercup family has adapted to allow and facilitate hummingbird pollination, a subject more complex than I want to tackle when a sunny spring day beckons.

Scarlet delphinium stems are erect and sometimes branch in their upper reaches. The lower leaves are nearly round and divided into 3 to 10 lobes. The bright red to orange red flowers  are stalked and have a 1/2 to 1 inch straight spur. Like all members of the buttercup family there are many stamens. The fruit is a dry follicle.

Like all delphiniums, the scarlet delphinium contains several alkaloids. Native Americans used the root as a medicinal narcotic. Although modern herbalists sometimes employ scarlet delphinium, great care must be taken since ingestion could cause major toxicity.

There is another “scarlet delphinium” (Delphinium cardinale), also known as a cardinal larkspur. Two plants with the same common name and flowers that look very similar is most confusing. However, the leaves of the cardinal larkspur or D. cardinale have five narrowly twisted divisions and are quite different from the leaves of D. nudicale.

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