Naked larkspur (Delphinium scaposum), an Ephemeral Perennial of the Buttercup Family (Ranunculaceae)
On April Fools’ Day, I convince my daughter Zoë to join me on a wildflower hunt in Saguaro National Park East. It is 2008, following a wet winter, and the day after Zoë’s sixteenth birthday. Windows down, we drive the loop with our boots and cameras flung into the backseat. It is late afternoon and the light is turning gold. On the stereo, Band of Horses is singing a lyric which contains a truth that Zoë may not appreciate until she has a child of her own: “No one’s gonna love you more than I do. Someone should have warned you.” When it comes to how a father feels about his only daughter growing up, the lyric resonates. Sometimes I think we spend most of our adult lives looking for a love equal to what we had, believed we had, or desperately wanted, from a parent. Only we don’t know it. Someone should have warned us.
Outside the car, the usual suspects--fire-tipped canes of ocotillo, acid yellow brittlebush flowers, and pink fairy duster puffballs whiz past. After parking near Javalina rocks, we are scarcely down the trail when Zoë spies a barestem or “naked” larkspur shooting up from a clump of dormant grama grass. Soon, with our larkspur eyes on, we are finding dozens of plants scattered over the rocky plain.
Naked larkspur’s European garden cousins are entirely different from the petite flowers at our feet. At the Chelsea Flower Show, specially bred larkspurs are staked with 6-foot-tall bamboo poles and trussed up with string to prevent flopping. They are fed with bone and fishmeal, doused with powerful systemic insecticides, and primped in hopes of bringing home blue ribbons. More than any other flower, larkspur evoke a Jane Austen picnic, the faint smell of ladies’ perfume, and the rattling of teacups.
As larkspurs go, the naked larkspur found in the park is a stripped down version of English garden varieties. It is a minimalist delphinium—all stem and nearly no foliage with flowers widely separated by air. Although the flowers are small, they retain a jewel-like essence and the magical blue color common to most Delphinium species. It is a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae)—an ancient family containing some of the earliest flowering plants to have evolved. For a plant with midnight colored flowers and stems containing deadly toxins, the “buttercup” family seems a tad too cheerful.
As a father and husband, I’ve been restless, absent, and often in hot pursuit of the wrong things—which sometimes included wildflowers. But today, wildflower hunting seems like exactly the right thing to do. Knee-high in larkspur, it occurs to me, that of all my fatherly duties leading a daughter to flowers is occasionally the most important. Parent-teacher conferences, volleyball games, and dance recitals, don’t afford the intimacy of a wildflower hike. Out in the pristine air, we can speak or not speak, stand together or apart, look for the same plant or different plants or just stare at the sky. There is enough room for both of us and things go without saying.
I see Zoë peering over the top of her camera’s viewfinder, and notice that she is actually smiling as she tries to capture the light illuminating the larkspur petals like stained glass. She brushes a few strands of blonde hair behind an ear. She is strikingly pretty, and it seems obvious now, although I nearly missed this transformation, that she is almost a grown woman. In two weeks, all of the larkspur in the park will go dormant. In two years, Zoë will leave home to study at Hendrix College in Arkansas. You can’t really plan a larkspur bloom or a hike with an adult daughter, the best ones occur organically—and if you’re lucky, they happen more than once. Consider yourself warned.
Scott Calhoun is the author of six books about gardening in the American West. He also runs Zona Gardens (zonagardens.com), a landscape design studio in Tucson, Arizona.