Plant Profile – Delphinium

I have a definite love/mild annoyance relationship with Delphiniums. They were one of the first perennial plants I grew from seed. In my optimistic youthful brain where I looked at every single task with a “How hard could it be?” attitude I had amazing success. Its a really high, no pun intended, reward plant. Within 2 years of sowing you could find yourself amongst a forest of jewel coloured giants up to 5 or 6 Ft tall!

This was my garden in Birmingham over 20 years ago, Delphiniums were a big feature, all grown from seed!

They, much like Hosta and Clematis, will always hold a special place in my heart as they were a plant that mum and I shared a love of. I gave her some of these plants which she took home to Durham and now 20 years on they or their babies still grow for dad. Its a lovely reminder of mum who we lost in 2010.

There are of course a few drawbacks, due to their humungous size they assuredly WILL need staking and there are several methods for achieving this which I’ll talk about in a moment . The main and perhaps most demoralising problem is slugs and snails. If you can however forgive their being tasty to molluscs they more than make up for it by being the real firecrackers of the traditional border. There is no modern fashionable plant that surpasses it, in my opinion.

When we, the average gardener think of Delphiniums we tend to concentrate on the Delphinium elatum hybrids. these are of course just a drop in the Delphinium species ocean of which there are over 300 species.

One of the most famous strains to come out of these various crosses is the ‘Pacific Giants’ hybrids, this is both tall, up to 2 meters (5 ft) in height and early maturing. Giving you flowers either in its first or second year.

If however you’re not so keen on the pot luck aspect of seed sowing you might like to seek out a specific cultivar. Apart from a good nursery, obviously, you might like to look at show exhibitors. Ive found over the years I have a tendency to photograph the same flowers repeatedly. This at least means I’m consistent if the ‘flavours’ I like and sometimes I even remember to photograph the names!

Michael Ayes 2019
Conspicuous, one I regularly photograph! 2015
Loch Leven, foreground. Michael Ayers, background 2015
Chelsea 2015

Another way is to visit a garden that uses them in their planting schemes, there are several that do this marvellously, east ruston vicarage gardens, Waterperrys and Goddington House are just a few I can name off the top of my head. Please do add any that you know of in the comments below!

The famous long border at Waterperrys

I would absolutely love to know the name of this one seen at east ruston vicarage a few years back, its magnificent!

East Ruston

Here’s a few more just because they’re so stunning!

‘Blue Lagoon’

But what about staking?

The method you use will depend entirely on your garden, how exposed it is and how tall your cultivar gets. Generally speaking I like weaving cages of hazel peasticks over the top of things. I find it aesthetically pleasing, it blends in nicely and of course, its very environmentally friendly but not everyone has access to this and it needs renewing every year.

Another option would be to use metal grids above the growing points so as the plant rises up it is loosely supported. on the plus side like the hazel it allows for movement in the stems and once they disappear below the foliage you don’t really notice them. Unlike hazel they could last up to 10 years in situ. Downsides are they are often ugly and in high winds/rain the flower spike could get broken.

The method most showers use is a tall bamboo cane, the flowering spike tied in regularly to provide support fully along its length, not the prettiest but effective!

Or if you have the depth of border for this, grow plants either side of a comparabe height that CAN support themselves. Like they do at Waterperry!

Pest and Disease

Your worst problem is going to be with Slugs and Snails. Due to their toxic nature deer and rabbits aren’t really a pest to Delphiniums.

Obviously the best deterrents are your natural predators so encourage Hedgehogs in by allowing access at the bottom of fences/gates etc. You can try feeding but that can of course encourage other animals in so best to be aware of that. Try including Hedgehog houses for hibernation.

Incorporate water into your garden even if its just a teeny pond that allows frogs, toads and small animals access safely. Birds will love it and they will all predate your Slugs and Snails.

Encourage birds by hanging out roosting pockets, nesting boxes etc.

You can also use barriers to protect vulnerable plants, often these will need replenishing, there is no final solution but Bran in a generous circle around the plant, sheeps wool, strulch, egg shells, copper tape/sheet circles. All are helpful deterrents.

The Relations of Delphinums

One of the famous cousins is Aconite, viewed with both awe and fear, it has been given a myriad of terror inducing and odd common names over the centuries which include monkshood, wolf’s-bane, leopard’s bane, mousebane, women’s bane, devil’s helmet, queen of poisons, or blue rocket. The word bane refers to its toxic components and its uses as a poison through the ages.

There is a fantastic, if somewhat heavy going, article on its history and sketchy “Medical” uses you can find HERE , it was first published in 1907 so some of its details may be a bit redundant but as recently as 2021 four people were hospitalised after ingesting it in an attempt to either cure or prevent COVID 19…. Dont do this people!!

Aconite, a kissing cousin to Delphiniums

Another commonly mistaken plant is the annual Larkspur, much smaller, daintier and often grown as a quick cut flower. I have to admit i’ve never had huge success with these. They feel like a lot of effort for very little return.

It was for a while included within the Delphinium family however it now sits within a different species, Consolida ajacis, also known as doubtful knight’s spur or rocket larkspur.

All of these plants are included in the Ranunculus, or buttercup, family.

Join a society!

If you would like to buy selected varieties or just learn more about the history, how to grow/show Delphiniums, I can highly recommend getting in touch with the lovely people at the Delphinium society. You get a free packet of seeds when you become a member and it costs about the same as a pack of Lurpack butter!

The Delphinium society grows examples at Goddington House, Kent ‘After Midnight’

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