Dazzling Delphiniums That Don’t Fall Down
I used to love delphiniums for their statuesque spears of flaming blue. For a few years, I grew all I could find, until my lust turned to disgust. Before long, I despised these border slatterns for their tumble-down habits. I was not alone in my dismay, and fortunately, determined hybridizers have taken on the task of rehabilitating this long time border belle. Today, I’m once again delighting in these queenly creatures, but this time I’m growing sturdier, more compact versions which provide that gorgeous blaze of blue without collapsing on the first windy day.
That tendency to tumble seemed odd to me, since these larkspur relatives hail from windy parts of Europe and are even in the wild Siberian wastes. They’ve also been prized garden plants since Elizabethan times, so how come they needed so much help just to stand up? The answer turned out to be neglect; once-proud seed strains had become very mixed bags, producing more losers than winners. The new strains are very reliable in sturdiness, size, and color, and are also just as attractive to butterflies and native bees (bumbles especially seem to enjoy them).
Sun And Deep Soil
Like all delphiniums, these new plants appreciate full sun and deep garden soil. In the past, the old girls sometimes struggled in my enthusiastically crowded beds. Now these modern hybrids are thriving in my sunny berms of sandy loam topped off with fish-waste-based compost and an elegant top dressing of digested dairy manure. They look very handsome planted in clusters between clumps of tawny pheasant tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana) and Jo Pye weed, set off by spreading skirts of common rhubarb. (Mine have deep red stems and a sinister past; they’re hand-me-downs from an elderly friend whose neighbor once got a bit too fond of her own homemade rhubarb wine, so her husband ripped out their plants and tossed them over the fence. My friend planted them and has been sharing divisions ever since, nearly 70 years now!).
So far, anyway, deer have ignored my delphiniums, along with the foxgloves, the sea hollies, the globe thistles, the agastaches, the penstemons and the cone flowers (Echinacea). Perhaps best of all, these new hybrids can stand up for themselves, so no unsightly cages or stakes are needed. In borders on flat ground, such props can usually be more or less hidden but in mounded or sloping beds, they are all too visible, even when the metals is carefully wound about with willow switches or raffia. The old delphiniums had strong stems but tended to blow over, and when they were staked, they’d snap right at the top of the stakes or cages. Happily, these new ones are cage-free and take windy days in stride.
New Heights & New Lows
The first dwarf delphiniums were introduced a few years ago as Delphinium New Heights. This Dutch seed strain was refined by ruthless roguing of once-classic English delphinium seed stocks. Roguing involves bringing crop after crop of seedlings into flower, then repeatedly removing any plants that are weak, disease prone, or muddy in color. The result is a triumphant range of hardy plants that reach 3-4 feet in height, with ample flowers in clear, vivid blues, glowing violet, and deep purple. Some are boldly marked with contrasting eyes or bees at each flower’s throat, so a deep blue flower might have a black or plum purple or white bee. If you carefully cut stems back after they bloom in June, side shoots create a second wave of blossoms in late summer.
Breeders in New Zealand were also working on compact, colorful delphiniums, and their New Millennium series is especially tolerant of hot, humid summers. All these shorties were developed with the help of a sport found by a Dutch grower, who noticed a single, extremely compact plant in a field of tall beauties. This natural dwarf was carefully hand-crossed with classic named varieties and the seedlings were field grown and rogued until the seed lines were stable. The offspring were selected for strong stems and large flowers, so the new plants are just as showy as their big sisters.
Other Small Delights
Those first compact delphiniums have since been coaxed into a number of similar strains, including the Magic Fountains series, which produces plants that are 30-36 inches high. These send up luscious spires that look equally lovely in smaller gardens or larger container plantings. Most are named for their coloration: Magic Fountains Cherry Blossom blooms in soft pink with white bees, while Magic Fountains Dark Blue/Dark Bee, Magic Fountains Mid Blue/White Bee, Magic Fountains Lilac Pink/White Bee and Magic Fountains Pure White/White Bee look exactly as you might suppose (only maybe a bit more beautiful).
Even more compact is Delphinium elatum Diamonds Blue, a dainty 18-24 incher with abundant flowers of a truly astonishing cobalt, summer sky blue on surprisingly bushy bloom spikes. The delicate foliage is handsome all by itself, making a pleasing contrast to broader leaves of companion plants such as hardy begonias and coppery coral bells. If you’ve been put off by delphinium failures in the past, give these new ones a try, since any or all of these are well worth growing, even where space is tight and deer are rampant!