Flowers of the heart

Canadian Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

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.

Canadian Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

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.

Canadian Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

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.

Canadian Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

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.

Canadian Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

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.

Canadian Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

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!

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6 responses to “Flowers of the heart

  1. Wonderful blog. It’s a little slice of nature while being trapped in the city.

  2. Well I”m glad to see you put up a flower post (just teasing). I have a soft spot for the local columbine too. Right now there are so many wildflowers that I’m not sure I could pick just one as a favourite though– perhaps the trilliums.

    Have a great weekend!

  3. Lovely photos! My mother has columbines in her garden. I know I have seen them elsewhere, too, but I am not sure if any of them have been wild. It’s sometimes hard to tell around here.

  4. Beautiful photographs! Thanks for the educational information on columbine, what a great service you do us all!

    As you can imagine columbine do quite well in rock gardens once they become well established. The delicate flower is one of many wild flowers that can looks beautiful in natural landscape gardens.

    Absolutely wonderful blog.

  5. Pingback: W Week – Wildflowers « the Marvelous in nature

  6. Pingback: The best of 2009 « the Marvelous in nature

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