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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case of delphinium poisoning in humans but 'Poisonous Plants in Britain and their effects on Animals and Man' quotes an unpublished account of a case where a man suffered a serious stomach upset with blurred vision and muscle spasms five hours after ingesting an unknown quantity of leaves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.

IMPORTANT NOTE

The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.

 

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Introduction to the A to Z section
Abrus precatorius, rosary pea
Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
Aconitum napellus, monkshood
Actaea racemosa, black cohosh
Actaea spicata, baneberry
Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut
Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
Aquilegia atrata, columbine
Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort
Artemisia absinthium, wormwood
Arum italicum, Italian cuckoopint
Arum maculatum, cuckoopint
Aspergillus fumigatus
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade
Brugmansia suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Bryonia dioica, bryony
Buxus sempervirens, common box
Camellia sinensis, tea
Cannabis sativa, marijuana
Catha edulis, khat
Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh
Claviceps purpurea, ergot
Clematis vitalba, old man's beard
Colchicum autumnale, naked ladies
Conium maculatum, poison hemlock
Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley
Cynoglossum officinale, hound’s tongue
Daphne mezereon, spurge olive
Datura stramonium, thorn apple, jimsonweed
Datura suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Delphinium, larkspur
Digitalis spp., foxglove
Dracunculus vulgaris, dragon arum
Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss
Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite
Erythroxylum coca, cocaine
Euonymus europaeus, spindle tree
Euphorbia x martinii, red spurge
Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia
Fritillaria spp., fritillary
Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop
Hedera helix, common ivy
Helleborus spp., hellebore
Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebell
Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
Ilex aquifolium, holly
Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort
Juniperus communis, common juniper
Laburnum anagyroides, laburnum
Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce
Leucojum aestivum, snowflake
Lithospermum officinale, gromwell
Lolium temulentum, darnel
Malus 'John Downie', crab apple
Mandragora officinarum, mandrake
Mercurialis perennis, dog’s mercury
Narcissus, daffodil
Nepeta faassenii, catmint
Nerium oleander, oleander
Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco
Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort
Papaver somniferum, opium poppy
Pastinaca sativa, parsnip
Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal
Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel
Pulsatilla vulgaris, pasque flower
Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup
Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb
Rhododendron spp.
Rhus radicans, poison ivy
Ricinus communis, castor oil plant
Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary
Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock
Ruta graveolens, rue
Salix alba, white willow
Salvia divinorum, sage
Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap
Senecio jacobaea, ragwort
Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade
Solanum melongena, aubergine
Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut
Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry
Symphytum spp., comfrey
Taxus baccata, yew
Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy
Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander
Urtica dioica, stinging nettle
Veratrum album, white hellebore
Verbascum olympicum, Greek mullein
Vinca major, greater periwinkle
Viscum album, mistletoe
Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree