Sub-Alpine Larkspur

Delphinium barbeyi (Ranunculaceae)

03 - Delphinium
Photo by Jimmy Lee

The sub-alpine larkspur is a member of Family Ranunculaceae, the buttercup family. Delphinium barbeyi is a tall plant reaching 1-2 m in height with a multitude of foliage ranging from 20-150 stalks per plant. Extremely tenacious, this perennial plant can live up to 75 years or even longer. D. barbeyi has deeply cleft lobes of leaves that extend almost to the rachis with large flowers that vary from deep purple to blue in color. It contains large multiple inflorescences which attract a number of insects and hummingbirds.

The sub-alpine larkspur thrives in areas with moist, well-developed soils. Its large flowers and multiple inflorescences attract three hummingbird species and two bumble bee species as pollinators. The sub-alpine larkspur contains alkaloids in its tissues that are toxic to grazing animals including livestock.

Ecological Relationships
The toxic alkaloid levels act as a defense mechanism against predators. The alkaloid levels are highest during the early growth stages of D. barbeyi decrease as the plant ages, and are lowest after the plant sets seed. The consumption of these toxins can lead to fatality of cattle grazing in mountain range land during the summer, especially on the western slope of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

Status and Conservation
In Colorado, research is being conducted to determine the toxicity levels in reference to the death of cattle. There is also current research into the relationship of breeding and pollination, and the relationship of flowering time and climate change. This species is currently not in danger of extinction.

Pfister, J. A., Manners, G. D., Gardner, D. R., and M. H. Ralphs. 1994. Toxic alkaloid levels in tall larkspur (Delphinium barbeyi) in western Colorado. Journal of Range Management. 47: 355-358.

Williams, C.F., J. Ruvinsky, P.E. Scott, and D.K. Hews. 2001. Pollination, breeding system, and genetic structure in two sympatric Delphinium (Ranunculaceae) species. American Journal of Botany 88(9): 1623-1633.

Inouye, D.W., M.A. Morales, and G.J. Dodge. 2002. Variation in timing and abundance of flowering by Delphinium barbeyi Huth (Ranunculaceae): the roles of snowpack, frost, and La Nina, in the context of climate change. Oecologia 130:543-550.

Tall Larkspur Range Plants of Utah.

Many thanks to Carly Beverlin and Dr. Pat Magee of Western State College for this submission, and to Dr. Lisa Bonneau of Metropolitan Community College-Blue River for her review and additions.