Natural Order Ranunculaceae, Tribe Helleboreae.
INTRODUCTORY REMARKS.—We are induced to give the genus Delphinium a passing notice in this work, not that any of the native species have ever been used in medicine but from the probability that they might be used in place of the imported drug.
The genus Delphinium, [The name is derived from the resemblance of the unopened flower to the head of a dolphin (Delphin), as formerly represented by artists.—Bentley & Trimen.] or Larkspur, is a very showy family of herbs found in the temperate regions of the Northern hemisphere. Several species are familiar in flower-gardens, the most common being Delphinium Consolida and Delphinium Ajacis. The flowers of all the species have a peculiar, odd shape (see Fig. 65), which enables the plants of the genus to be easily distinguished. Those who are familiar with the cultivated Larkspur will recognize the wild species on sight.
MEDICINAL SPECIES.—The plant mostly used in medicine is the Delphinium Staphisagria of Southern Europe. It is a tall, coarse herb with an unpleasant odor, and grows wild in the Mediterranean regions. It is known under the English name Stavesacre.
The part mostly used is the seeds, and their virtues seem to reside in alkaloidal principles (Delphinine, Staphisagrine and perhaps others) that are found in the shell of the seeds. The drug is derived mostly from Trieste. Perhaps the greater part however of the medicine used in this country is the so-called "German tincture," imported from Germany (where the plant does not grow). The drug has been officinally recognized in the last Pharmacopoeia under the name of Staphisagria.
Delphinium Consolida is another species that has been noticed considerable in medical works, but has never come into much use. In the Pharmacopoeia of 1870 the seed was recognized, but the drug had never been used enough to merit a position, and was wisely discarded in 1880.
The plant is the most common species in flower-gardens, and can readily be distinguished from other species by having only one seed pod to the flower (the usual number is three). It often escapes from flower-gardens and becomes established, for a few years, by road sides and in waste places, but it is not disposed to be a permanent weed, In Central Europe, however, it is considered a troublesome weed in grain fields.
Delphinium tricorne is, perhaps, the most common species east of the Mississippi. It is a dwarf plant, less than a foot high, with a few petioled leaves at the base, and a long raceme of large, showy blue flowers that appear in early spring. The plant grows from a tuberous root, and is generally found in patches on clayey soil and in open woods. It can be at once recognized by our picture.
Delphinium exaltatum and Delphinium azureum are the only other Eastern species. Both can be readily distinguished from. the preceding by their height, which is from two to four feet. They are widely distributed but mostly rare.
Neither of these three species, as we have remarked, has any probability of becoming of any importance as a drug, although all doubtless possess, in the shell of their seeds, the peculiar alkaloids of the genus.
Western Species.—There are a number of Western species all as yet uninvestigated, but most likely to be found active agents; and, as in many places they grow abundantly, they are worthy of attention. It is scarcely necessary to consume our space with the characteristics by which they are distinguished from each other, as one species is as likely to prove valuable as another. They can all be known as Delphiniums at once by the shape of the flower.
The most common species are Delphinium Menziesii, Delphinium decorum, Delphinium azureum, Delphinium bicolor, Delphinium californicum and Delphinium simplex.
In certain localities in the West where cattle are poisoned by eating some wild plant, a species of Delphinium is supposed by some to be the plant that causes the trouble. It is only a supposition, however, and not proven that we can find. [In our opinion the trouble is ascribed falsely to this plant, and we believe that it really belongs to some species of Leguminous plants; probably an Astragalus, several of which have proven to be poisonous to animals, and are called in the West "Loco Plants."—L.] We give, as a note on the subject, a letter received from Wm. C. Cusick, a well known Western botanist. ["Only in certain localities the stock (cattle) are poisoned, although the plant is found everywhere. There is no place nearer than forty or fifty miles of us where it seems to injure stock, and I am but little acquainted with the symptoms of the poisoned animals. The plant is known to botanists as Delphinium decorum, Fisch. & Meyer var. nevadense. Stock men call it "Larkspur." It seems to poison only cattle, and poisons them only in the early spring when they are first turned on the crop, and it is thought by the cattle men that the animals pull up the plant and cat the roots, which are supposed to be the poisonous part of the plant.
"The symptoms, as well as I can remember, as related to me are: The cattle stagger and fall, soon becoming unable to rise, become wild and dangerous to approach. So long as they are able to go they attack fiercely any person who may approach them. Many of them die, though most recover. I do not know the antidotes, if there are any. It is a query to me if it is really the Larkspur that poisons, for it abounds in our own neighborhood, but never poisons stock here.
"There is this difference, however. In all the neighborhood where the plant is poisonous the altitude is much less than the general elevation, hence the climate is much warmer, and it is possible that the plant that will kill in one place may not be injurious in another. This is only a guess, and perhaps a very absurd one."—WM. C. CUSICK.]
MEDICAL PROPERTIES.—The native species of Delphinium doubtless possess properties similar to those of the foreign, and as Delphinium Staphisagria is used extensively by Eclectic physicians, we reproduce from Prof. Scudder's Specific Medication, as follows:
"The tincture of Staphisagria has a specific action on the reproductive organs of both male and female; but more marked in the first. It quiets irritation of the testes, and strengthens their function; it lessens irritation of the prostrate and vesiculae; arrests prostatorrhoea and cures inflammation of these parts. It also exerts a marked influence upon the urethra, quieting irritation and checking mucous, or muco-purulent discharges; it influences the bladder and kidneys, but in a less degree.
"The action of Staphisagria upon the nervous system is peculiar. It exerts a favorable influence where there is depression of spirits and despondence, in cases of hypochondriasis and hysteria, especially when attended with moroseness and violent outbursts of passion."
In addition, we offer the following synopsis, by Prof. Stillè, of the medical uses of the species, Delphinium consolida and Delphinium Staphisagria, and no doubt our native species will conform in properties.
"They have been used in the treatment of dropsy and spasmodic asthma, generally in the form of a tincture, which has been much employed as a lotion, or as an ointment for the destruction of lice. These effects are due to the alkaloid delphinine."