Friday, July 28

Looking Lovely in Lavender

The little Yukon wildflowers in oldest son's photo on the left are commonly called cranesbill or wild geranium. You'd be right if you said they don't look a whole lot like the so-called geraniums you have in the hanging pot on your deck. That's because your bright red potted beauty is not really a member of the geranium family, but rather the pelargonium family, and thus only a cousin to the true geraniums. The family name switcheroo came from a mix-up by botanists in the 1700s, and it's too late now to straighten thing out, so we are doomed to live in a world where the most commonly known geranium is not a geranium at all.

So much for the wild geranium name. The cranesbill name isn't obvious, either, at least not from the look of the blossom. That name comes from the seed head, which resembles, I'm told, the shape of the bill of a crane. You can judge for yourself in the picture below. The seedheads are shown on the bottom.

What do you think? They look like little pirate swords to me, but then I've never seen a crane's bill up close for comparison.

As far as I can tell, any harvesting of this plant is done for herbal medicine purposes only, and then it's used for a lot of problems you'd really prefer not to have. I think I'd rather leave them be and enjoy them for their beauty in their natural setting.

Next up is a dark lavender or blue purple Yukon wildflower that's blooming right now--the mountain larkspur, if you're Canadian, or sierra larkspur, if you're American, or delphinium glaucum, if you want to show off your Latin. And those of you who love Latin might know that the name delphinium comes from the resemblance each flower on the stalk has to a little leaping and swimming purple dolphin.

This particular type of delphinium or larkspur (and there are many types of wild delphinium) is native in western North America from Alaska down through California, and eastward as far as Alberta. It can also be found in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but there it's not indigenous, but an introduced species. And that's a pity, because it does a nasty number on cattle who eat too much of it. Every spring on the prairies, when the larkspur tends to reach grazing height before the surrounding natural grasses, some cattle will be lost due to larkspur poisoning. It's toxic to other animals as well, like horses and sheep, but not nearly so deadly as it is to cattle, and no one understands exactly why that is.

It's because of it's bad effect on grazing cattle that delphinium glaucum has been declared a prohibited noxious weed in both the U.S. and Canada. That means you can't import the seeds, although I'm not sure what the seed import ban accomplishes, since they are native plants in both countries. If you are visiting any cattle grazing country, though, you'll want to check your pockets for stray delphinium seeds before you go, just in case. You wouldn't want to be accidently responsible for any untimely cattle deaths.

So are delphinium good for anything, besides looking tall and stately and deep purple? As you might imagine, that noxious label limits their use as food or medicine. But they do sometimes get to be a pretty blue ink, which sounds rather exciting, when the juice of their flowers is mixed with alum.

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Both photos by oldest son are clickable for larger viewing.