Friday, June 7, 2013



A beautiful plant related to the ornamental delphiniums and larkspurs of our gardens, stavesacre is a poisonous member of the buttercup family. Its seeds were used topically to kill scabies and lice in antiquity and in the Middle Ages. Since this Mediterranean native isn’t winter hardy in our climate, seeds must be started indoors or in a cold frame; the young plants are set out once the danger of frost is past.

Stavesacre (Delphinium staphisagria) belongs to the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup, family, a large family of poisonous plants, some of which have been exploited medicinally despite their toxicity. Both Dioscorides and Pliny affirm stavesacre’s effectiveness against scabies and headlice, and it was used for that purpose for many centuries. Constantinus Africanus recommends it to purge phlegm, clean the sinuses, ease toothache, and cure diseased gums, all uses discussed by Dioscorides. Constantinus also says it will remove internal obstructions; the fifteenth-century Hortus Sanitatis adds the healing of bites, and the relief of epilepsy to the list. Despite this impressive roster of cures, the risk was great. Dioscorides warned that the consumption of stavesacre in melicrate, a fermented or unfermented mixture of honey and water, could be fatal. He recommends that those who have drunk this infusion should be made to walk, and cautions that suffocation and a “burning of the jaws” were real dangers.

The Latin name of the genus Delphinium was derived from the ancient Greek, noting a fancied resemblance of the flower spur to the back of a dolphin. The curious English common name “stavesacre” is derived from Dioscorides’ name for the species, staphis agria.

???Deirdre Larkin


Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.

Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.

Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.

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Comments (7)

  1. Michelle Says:

    Deidre, This plant is so beautiful and how wonderful that it is useful as well! How did they use the seeds topically to terminate lice? Crushed into a paste?
    I recently toured the garden with the Herb Society. It was a special visit, and the gardens were lovely.

  2. anne Says:

    Where do you get the seeds/plants for the Cloister gardens? Are they simply kept over from year to year? Obviously, many of the mature specimens are kept, but the annuals/tender perennials?

  3. David Says:

    This plant is beautiful and your post is so informative about it, Thanks for sharing!

  4. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Michelle—

    Dioscorides recommended that the seeds be bruised and ‘anointed on’ with oil for scabies and other itches. (DMM, Book IV, 156). Pliny, who also cautions against the internal use of the seeds, because of their excessive and injurious heat, says they can be pounded and applied to both head and body to kill lice, and to treat other forms of pruritis and scab. (NH, Book XXIII, 17.)


    We order seeds from specialty suppliers both in Europe and North America each year. We are always looking to expand the living collection, and to secure the most historically appropriate species and forms. Once a plant is established in the garden, we do sometimes collect seeds; others species sow themselves. We have very few annuals, but a fair number of biennials, which are displayed in both their first and second year of growth. Most, but not all of the perennials are hardy. Some of those that are not can be wintered over in our cold frames or our very limited offsite greenhouse space, heated to 50 degrees in winter.

    David—it is indeed a very beautiful plant, and well worth the extra trouble to grow.

    This is proving to be a much-admired plant!


  5. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Anne, I’ll be very happy to send plant and seed sources, as well as any plant lists you might like, to your e-mail address. We will eventually be adding these to the blog as content pages. I enjoyed visiting the Acair Ferran website, and will visit again.


  6. Jason Says:

    This plant is awesome! I think the fact that it is the poisonous member of the buttercup family, is why I like it so much. When I think buttercup I think harmless, so for it to be dangerous is different and awesome.

  7. Erica Says:

    Is it possible to get a list of seed (or plant) sources still? I am trying to begin a medieval garden and would like to be able to populate it with the correct plants (as much as possible in the USDA zone I’m in).



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