How is a delphinium like a dolphin?

By | October 24, 2013

Sometimes it seems like everything is named for a resemblance to something else. This is a story of the similarity-based links among two flowers, three birds, and a cetacean. Oh, yes: and an amphibian.

I recently read a short story in which a New England matron establishes a garden club in her town because she’s the local expert in delphiniums and lilies. By the magic of associative thinking, the constellation of Delphinus, the dolphin, sprang readily to my mind when I saw the word delphinium. What, I wondered, could possibly link the two? (Delphinus itself, a small constellation in the summer sky, is shaped like an elongated diamond; like most other constellations, it requires a good deal of imagination to see the thing it’s named for.)

Photograph of a delphinium.

Beautiful view of a single delphinium; you can see the nectary quite clearly, although the dolphin resemblance is not especially strong. ©Tom Hilton under a Creative Commons license.

The flower, as it turns out, is called delphinium, after the Latin word for dolphin, because the nectary (where the nectar comes from) sticks out behind the flower and is somewhat curved, resembling the sleek curvy front end of a dolphin. The back side of the flower, in other words, looks like the front side of the dolphin. Multiple flowers appear on a single stalk, each with a more or less extravagant projection behind it.

This would be the end of the story, except that the delphinium is also called the larkspur, because that nectary projecting out the back side also resembles the projecting structure called a spur on a lark’s foot. (Technically, larkspur is used to refer to flowers in the genus Delphinium and also to some in the genus Consolida, We will leave Consolida for another day.)

This brings us to the other flower, the columbine (genus Aquilegia), which is named for not one but (possibly) two birds. These lovely airy blooms that dance in the spring breezes have inspired a number of imaginative comparisons. Aquilegia may come from aquila, the Latin word for eagle, because the flowers resemble the claw of an eagle. (Coincidentally, the constellation of Aquila appears not too far from Delphinus in the sky.) An alternative explanation is that Aquilegia comes from the Latin word for water bearer, because each part of the distinctive flower looks like an amphora, or water jug; amphorae typically had a pointed end that could be placed in soft earth to hold the jug upright.

The second bird this flower is named for is the dove, columba in Latin, because the flower as a whole is thought to resemble a group of doves. If the eagle story is true, this flower is named for both the warlike eagle and the peaceful dove.

At this point in my research, I became aware of a dim memory stirring in the back of my mind: Don’t some churches have something called a columbarium? They do, and it’s not where they keep the doves. It’s a place for the proper storage of funeral urns containing the ashes of the dead. However, the urns are stored in an arrangement of compartments that is similar to that used in a dovecote.

Oh yes: the amphibian. The columbine and the delphinium are both members of the Ranunculaceae family. The family takes its name from the ranunculus, which in turn takes its name from the Latin for little frog. The resemblance here is not visual; like frogs, ranunculus like to live near water.