Larkspur

July Blooms

By Ginny A. Roth

Larkspur.
Lark Spur, 1737
National Library of Medicine #C03100

 

The image featured above is a botanical illustration of the flower, fruit, and seed of the Larkspur, the July birth flower, and one of the plants featured in Elizabeth Blackwell’s 1737 book A Curious Herbal.

Elizabeth Blackwell (1707–1758) was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and moved to London after her marriage where she undertook her work on the herbal—a book describing the appearance, properties and use in preparing ointments and medicines. An original edition of Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal is in the NLM collection and selected pages can be explored virtually through NLM’s Turning The Pages project on the web, via ipad app or in kiosks in the NLM History for Medicine Reading Room and Visitor Center. The work was an unprecedented achievement for a woman of Mrs. Blackwell’s time. She drew, engraved and colored the illustrations herself, mostly using plant specimens from London’s Chelsea Physic Garden. Blackwell’s Herbal was issued in weekly parts between 1737 and 1739, each part containing four illustrated plates and a page of text. The series was highly praised by leading physicians and apothecaries, and made enough money to secure Mrs. Blackwell’s husband’s freedom from debtors’ prison.

Popular in floral arrangements and gardens, Larkspur is a perennial flower in the buttercup family. It comes in a variety of colors including purple, pink, and white, and has a variety of meanings including fickleness, a happy-go-lucky nature, and romantic love. Larkspur bloom from late spring to late summer and have the potential to grow up to several feet tall.  Although small amounts of the extracts of Larkspur have been used in herbal medicine, Larkspur is very poisonous if ingested. Larkspur and it’s derivatives continue to be of interest to scientists.

portrait of Ginny outside Ginny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

3 comments

  1. What was the medicinal use of larkspur ? You state it was very poisonous so I assume that its use was topical in nature. Being ensconced in debtors prison congers thoughts of Charles Dickens. Its probably better than going to Australia but if Elizabeth had not published A Curious Herbal Mr Blackwell could have spent the rest of his life in prison. Thank you for an interesting article.

  2. Robert,
    Thanks very much for your comment. I’ve found some accounts that larkspur was primarily used to make a lotion or tincture for topical application to kill lice, crabs, and other parasites. Because the larkspur contains toxic alkaloids it is highly poisonous to humans and animals and so should not be ingested. On a side note, I’ve also read that mixing the juice from the flower petals with alum produces blue ink.

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