Columbine are one of my favourite wildflowers. I think it’s their beautiful red colour combined with their interesting shape that really appeals to me. I’m rather partial to red, and it’s not a very common colour among wildflowers. I can think of only a few species from our area that sport striking red blossoms.
I don’t recall columbine being very abundant where I grew up, except for a couple plants in my mom’s garden. My wildflower guide states their preferred habitat to be “Rocky, wooded, or open slopes.” That seems to cover most types of habitat, but the last word, slopes, might be the key. The sloping habitat is reiterated at this site, with the additional description of thin soils over rock. At least on my parents’ property, there weren’t too many of those.
Certainly there’s lots here, however, of all three types. On the slope in front of our house – semi-open, semi-wooded, partially rocky – there seem to be quite a number of plants growing. I’m delighted because, as I said, columbine are one of my favourites. Every time I happen to pass by the patch of rocky slope where they’re growing I pause to admire them.
The wild columbine we have growing here has the common name of Wild Columbine, or sometimes Canadian Columbine, as its scientific name is Aquilegia canadensis. Despite that, it’s actually rather widespread, growing from the east coast as far west as Saskatchewan and Texas. Really, Canadian Columbine is a more appropriate name, as there is more than just one species of wild columbine. There are perhaps 60-70 species in the genus Aquilegia, of which 20 are native to North America. They are found in virtually every corner of the continent, where suitable habitat conditions exist.
They come in many colours, too. Our eastern variety is red, but they are also found in blue, white, pink, yellow or purple. Most, including the wild species, are bi-tone, or two-coloured. The ones we have here are mostly red, but with yellow inside. It’s an interesting pattern of colours. The flower itself is an interesting pattern of structures. There are five long, curving spurs; it’s possible that the group’s Latin name, Aquilegia, comes from the Latin “aquilinum”, meaning “eagle-like”, in reference to their resemblance to eagle talons. These spurs hold the flower’s nectar in their base, and the other possible origin for the genus name might come from the Latin for “water collector” because of this.
Columbine are members of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, which are characterized by having five-petaled flowers. The five spurs open up into the yellow mouths, and each tube is formed from a single petal. In between each spur flares out the sepal. In most flowers the sepal is green, but in some it is pigmented in petal-like coloration. Sepals are modified leaves and serve the purpose of protecting the petals while the flower is still closed and growing.
In the centre of the flower cluster the reproductive bits. The stamens, the male parts which bear the pollen, mature before the styles, the female parts which receive the pollen, so that flowers don’t self-fertilize. Instead, they’re pollinated by hummingbirds and bumblebees, and other long-tongued nectar-feeders. The hummers are no surprise, as their long, tubular, red flowers are the sort that tend to be associated with cases of coevolution between plants and hummingbirds. The flowers rely on these species for reproduction; to thwart smaller insects that might steal the nectar without transferring pollen, the spurs are constricted right near the end, and the nectar sits in the little bubble beyond the constriction, which prevents access by small bees.
The plants contain a cardiogenic toxin which, depending on the quantity ingested, can result in either an uncomfortable night of stomach cramps, or a quick trip to the hospital with serious heart problems (unless you’re a moth; there are several species that feed on columbine as a host plant). Native Americans would use infusions from the plants to treat a number of ailments, including, ironically, heart troubles. Flowers were eaten in small quantities as a sweet addition to salads. Apparently, the pulverized seeds, when rubbed on the hands, were also considered a love charm.
Their most common role these days, however, is as a garden plant. A number of species have been cultivated for the garden (the first ones being brought out of the forest in the 1600s), with artificial hybrids producing a variety of eye-catching colour combinations. They readily adapt to most garden conditions, providing they have the right lighting (not too shady, not too sunny), and are hardy plants that easily seed themselves.
Now that I’m back in a setting where I have the opportunity to do a bit of gardening, columbine will be among the first additions. Hopefully I will find it as easy to grow as it’s purported to be!