WHAT FLOWER is more quintessentially Grandma’s cottage garden than delphiniums? In fact, they’re ancient flowers, with a name from the Greek language meaning “dolphin.” This refers to the curve of the spurred buds, although I’ve never been able to see the shape of a marine mammal.
I overlooked delphinium for years; they seemed ill-suited to smaller, easier-care gardens. After all, delphiniums flower for only 10 days or so. If I’m going to give garden room to brief bloomers, they need, like peonies, to compensate with handsome, long-lasting foliage. Or bloom early or late in the season. Delphiniums flower right when everything else does, and their leaves are … not exciting.
Or so I thought until I fell for English delphiniums (D. elatum). Believe me, when you see these supermodel-tall flower spikes in shades of deep Aegean-sea blue, you’ll fall in love. The darkest are nearly cobalt, set off by black bees. That is what the fuzzy centers of delphinium are called because it looks as if a bumblebee has crawled into the heart of the flower seeking nectar. Which they do; bumblebees and butterflies pollinate delphiniums.
I don’t think there’s another flower so intensely blue, let alone one centered in contrasting black, brown or white bees. Sure, we have blue gentians, corydalis and meconopsis. But those are soft, gentle notes of blue compared with delphinium’s raucous full-band color.
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Many gardeners stopped growing delphinium after the deterioration (through careless breeding) of the ‘Pacific Giant’ variety. But English delphiniums, grown from hand-pollinated seed, are reliably hardy with strong, thick stems. They need sun, good drainage and plenty of manure, compost and water. Then stand back because these babies grow 6 to 8 feet tall. Quickly. If you can bring yourself to cut them, a flowering stem in a slim vase is an arrangement all by itself. If the taller hybrids overwhelm your garden, check out the ‘New Heights’ dwarf English delphinium that tops out at 3 to 4 feet.
How to integrate these showstoppers into the garden? Delphiniums aren’t as versatile as, say, coneflowers, which mix easily and casually with grasses and other perennials. They look most at home grown in more formal beds, or at the middle or back of a perennial border. I’ve devoted a big raised bed to delphiniums and friends; after I cut back the delphiniums, prickly sea hollies (Eryngium giganteum) and snowy matilija poppies (Romneya coulteri) carry on through summer into autumn.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.