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Delphinium spp.

Summary

Much admired for its beauty when in flower, delphiniums have caused a number of fatal poisonings in cattle.

Blog Entries

Read more about delphiniums in these blog entries;
Why this page has been added to the A to Z listings

Family

Ranunculaceae

Meaning of the Name

Delphinium
Generally, said to be from the Greek for dolphin either because the flower spikes were thought to resemble the creature or just the nectary.

There are around 300 species within the genus. Some of the more common being;

elatum
tall

grandiflorum
large flowers

staphisagria
clusters

nutallianum
nodding

Common Names and Synonyms

larkspur, delphinium

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Quite closely related to the Aconitum genus, its principle alkaloid, delphinine, is similar to aconitine.

Ingestion leads to nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, muscular spasms. If fatal, death is usually due to respiratory collapse or cardiac arrest.

Incidents

Largely because there is nothing about the plant to encourage ingestion, it is rated Category 'C' by the Horticultural Trades Association as having the lowest potential for harm to humans.

I have never seen a fully documented case of delphinium poisoning in humans but 'Poisonous Plants in Britain and their effects on Animals and Man' quotes an unpublished account of a case where a man suffered a serious stomach upset with blurred vision and muscle spasms five hours after ingesting an unknown quantity of leaves and seeds. He was fully recovered after twelve hours.

Most of the poisonings reported in the literature are related to cattle and other farm animals in the USA where some species are found growing in pastureland. There are not many reports in total and it appears to have become less of a problem in more recent years, perhaps because the danger is better understood.

The only reports, so far, in the 21st century come from Switzerland where two cases have been written up making me wonder if, perhaps, the Delphinium elatum concerned was a garden escapee that has spread to farmland.

Folklore and Facts

There is surprisingly little folklore associated with delphiniums. Surprising because it is quite common and its height makes it imposing.

John Gerard, who gives 'delphinium' as an alternative name for Consolida, a related but different genus, says that there is little written about any medicinal uses other than as an antidote to scorpion stings. He quotes the notion that laying delphiniums in the path of a scorpion will render it totally incapable of movement until the plant is removed but says this is just one of many 'trifling toyes' that are not worth reading.

As a American plant, it might be expected to feature in native American medicine but it does not. Indeed Charles E. Millspaugh, in 'American Medicinal Plants' only mentions it once and that as being a member of the buttercup family.

The question of whether the whole plant was thought to resemble a dolphin or just the nectary may lead to one fanciful story that, in ancient Rome, men were pursuing a dolphin for commercial exploitation so Neptune turned it into the Delphinium.

It's common name 'larkspur' is, again said to be a reference to its look. The town of Larkspur in Colorado was given its name by Elizabeth Hunt, wife of the governor, in 1871 because of the abundance of delphiniums growing in the area.