Larkspur and Monkshood

ChiloquinNews article 8/8/11

 Larkspur and Monkshood are both tall and stately plants with spikes of rich blue flowers, and they are prized cottage garden plants. Although they appear quite similar from a distance, a closer inspection shows that the flowers are quite different. Larkspurs have a spur on the flower, while monkshood looks just like its name, a hood. There are some drawbacks though to these beautiful plants.

 Larkspur is the common name for flowers in the Genus Delphinium, which has about 300 species of both perennial and annual varieties, native throughout the Northern Hemisphere and also the high mountains of tropical Africa. Often the term Larkspur is used to refer to the annual varieties while Delphinium is used for the perennials, especially those with towering 6 ft blooms. There are many garden hybrids available now, including dwarf varieties, and colors of pink, white and even yellow.

 There are a host of native low larkspur species occurring from dry California grasslands and chaparral to southwestern deserts and high mountaintops. They are quite common here in the Chiloquin area. In the West they are second only to locoweeds as a livestock poison, especially for cattle. Tall larkspur is more common in high-elevation areas, and is just as deadly.

 All parts of the plant, especially the seeds, contain an alkaloid, delphinine, and are very poisonous, causing vomiting if eaten, and death in large enough amounts. Death can occur within a few hours. Symptoms include burning lips and mouth, numb throat, intense vomiting and diarrhea, muscle weakness and spasms, paralysis of the respiratory system and convulsions.  In small amounts, plant extracts have been used in herbal medicine, for some very interesting maladies.  Drinking the seed of larkspur was thought to help against the stings of scorpions, and was also used against parasites, especially lice and their nits in the hair. It was one of the herbs used on the feast of St. John and as such warded against lightning. In Transylvania, it was used to keep witches from the stables. The juice of the flowers, mixed with alum, can be used as blue ink.

 Monkshood, also known as Wolfsbane is in the Genus Aconitum, which has about 250 species native to the moist, mountainous regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Most are perennials. It grows extremely well in this area. It has been a popular cottage garden plant for hundreds of years. But….

 All parts of Aconitum, especially the roots, are full of an alkaloid called aconitine.  Aconitine causes the same symptoms as delphinine, but even abraded skin can absorb a dangerous dose and merely using fingers that have touched a little sap to pick up food (or a cigarette) can prove fatal. Native peoples have taken advantage of this poison for centuries. Juice from the roots was commonly used to poison arrow tips used for hunting and warfare. Some mythologies claim the plant could be used to repel werewolves, while others claim it actually confers the ability to transform into a werewolf.

If you have small children you might want to avoid these pants in your garden, but if your children are grown, and you are aware of what you are dealing with, they are truly spectacular and beautiful plants, and in this area, easy to grow, so long as you provide them with ample water, well-drained soil and perhaps a little shade in the hottest part of the day.

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