There are certain genera that I almost always encounter in a garden setting. These are usually gaudy cultivars from other continents. This is especially true for Delphiniums. Since I moved back east, the only Delphiniums I see are garden varieties. All of that changed this year. I recently had the pleasure of meeting a Delphinium I had never met before. What's more, I managed to stumble upon a patch of forest that boasted a rather large population. The species in question is the dwarf larkspur (Delphinium tricorne) and it is a plant worth knowing.
Dwarf larkspur is native to a good chunk of the eastern United States, only absent from the northeastern and southeastern portions. It is a spring ephemeral, coming into blooming for about three weeks in late spring. The inflorescence this plant produces is stunning to say the least. If you're lucky enough to find yourself surrounded by these plants like I was, its as if the entire forest floor is awash in a sea of purple.
The flowers can only be pollinated by queen bumblebees and hummingbirds. Whereas other insects will visit the flowers, the morphology is such that they are not effective pollinators. By the beginning of summer, the plants will have produced their seeds. At this time, however, the embryo within is not yet mature. It will not mature until the coming fall. Dwarf larkspur embryos do not begin to grow until temperatures have dropped to around 5 °C (41 °F). Then and only then will the seeds be ready to germinate, all in time for the arrival of spring.
Like nearly all members of the buttercup family, the dwarf larkspur produces toxic alkaloids. Because of this, few herbivores will chance a nibble. Unfortunately for Delphiniums across North America, this fact has earned them a rather negative reputation among livestock owners. Nonetheless, these plants are wonderful and important ecological components wherever they are native. What's more, dwarf larkspur is growing in popularity among native gardeners looking to add some color to shaded portions of their landscape.