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Native Wildflowers of the North Dakota Grasslands

JPG -- species photo

Little Larkspur (Delphinium bicolor)


A plant of extreme western North Dakota, little larkspur is a true Great Plains plant restricted to the crescent of dry grasslands that stretch from Alberta south to western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming.

Little larkspur is perennial from a fibrous or, rarely, a tuber-like root system. Stems are finely hairy, usually unbranched, and less than 16 inches long. The few leaves are greatly reduced in size upwards. Those at the base are on stalks (petioles) up to three inches long, with blades divided into narrow lobes. The large deep-blue flowers have five sepals and four petals, two of which are whitish. This gives the flowers a bicolored appearance. Two of the petals bear deep nectar cups. Each flower may produce three "pods" (follicles) containing many winged seeds.

Look for little larkspur during May to July on dry or moist gravelly prairie or exposed soils that are not severely grazed. This is one of the "low larkspurs" believed to be poisonous to livestock, but plants are never abundant and likely are avoided by cattle. The juices or seeds of many of the Delphiniums were used by various native peoples worldwide as insecticides, internal parasiticides, to control lice and ticks, and for dyes. However, I found no references to economic uses for the species discussed here. This is true for many Great Plains plants whose ethnobotany was, unfortunately, never recorded.

The larkspurs are in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) which also contains the crowfoots, meadow rues, anemones, columbine, and baneberry. The great Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder applied the name Ranunculus, "a little frog," to these mostly aquatic plants that grow where frogs abound. The generic name Delphinium is derived from the Latin for "dolphin," which the shape of the flowers vaguely resembles. The specific epithet bicolor means "of two colors" in botanical Latin. Little larkspur was first described for science in 1834 by Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859). He visited what now is North Dakota in 1811.


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