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Columbines (Jennifer Holcombe/

Columbine is the common name for the Aquilegia species belonging to the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup, family. It has been suggested that both the Latin name and the common name of these perennial, yet short-lived, plants are inspired by the instantly recognizable shape of the flower, which, from certain angles, appears bird-like. The name Aquilegia derives from the Latin word for eagle, aquilia, as the spurs of the flowers resemble the talons of a bird of prey.

The Latin name may also be a compound of the Latin words aqua, meaning “water,” and leger, meaning “to collect,” as water may pool on the flowers and leaves and nectar collects on the spurs. The common name, columbine, derives from the Latin for dove, columba, for, looked at from above, the flower head of a short- spurred columbine resembles a dove with an erect tail.


There are around 70 species of columbine with flowers appearing between April and July. The flowers are held either in loose racemes or singly with colors including shades of pink, purple, lilac, blue, white, yellow, and red or combinations of colors in single, double, and semidouble forms. The columbine Nora Barlow is a spurless, mutated form of Aquilegia vulgaris, which is popular for use in ornamental displays as it has pale green and rosy pink blooms in double form. The frilly appearance of Nora Barlow has led to the columbine gaining the familiar name granny’s bonnet. Columbine plants are mound shaped, around one foot wide, with lobed green, blue-green, or gray-green leaves. Columbines can reach up to four feet tall, but the average height for a plant is nearer two-and-one-half feet. Columbines prefer full sun or partial shade with plants grown in full sun producing more blooms than shade-dwelling specimens. Columbines are not choosy about soil, growing usually in rich or average to light soil. However, as they grow from long, tough taproots, which make the plant drought resistant, columbines can be found growing in the cracks of walls and paths where both soil and moisture are scant. The length and strength of columbine taproots mean that once a plant is established, it can prove difficult to remove.

Columbines are pollinated by insects such as moths and butterflies and others with a tongue long enough to reach the flower’s nectar. Bees that attempt to reach the nectar by scything through the tube holding the nectar find that the tube secretes a bitter liquid intended to discourage such action. The seed capsule of the columbine is less than one inch in length, consists of five sections, and houses numerous small, shiny, black seeds. Columbines can also be propagated easily from seed, and the plants are able to self-sow. Many cultivated varieties of the columbine are derived from the wild columbine Aquilegia canadensis, which has red petals and yellow spurs. However, if the cultivar is allowed to run to seed and self-sow, the descendants will revert to the wild Aquilegia form and the culti- var will be eradicated from the garden population. In 2002, the columbine’s propensity to self-seed led to a ban on the import of Aquilegia seeds into the United States as the plant was considered to be too invasive if accidently introduced into the wild.


The columbine is widely distributed across the Northern Hemisphere, especially in temperate and cold regions at higher altitudes, although Aquilegia fragrans and Aquilegia skinneri are less tolerant of the cold than some varieties of columbine. In Europe, Aquilegia vulgaris proliferates, and wild columbines such as the five-petaled Aquilegia canadensis can be found across the United States and

Canada as the species was named during the period when Canada extended across the United States as far south as New Orleans. A western Columbine, the Rocky Mountain Columbine, is officially the state flower of Colorado. Columbine features in Native America cultures. In Iroquois legend, Aquilegia canadensis originated when five chiefs were transformed into the flower after having fallen in love with a maiden and neglecting their duties in their haste to find the object of their passion. The red petals of the flower represent the chiefs’ shirts and the yellow spurs their moccasins. Different Native American tribes put the columbine to different uses. The men of the Omaha and Ponca Indians spread mashed columbine seeds on to their hands as a love potion, whereas Native Americans of the western United States would boil and eat the roots. However, columbine should not be consumed. Several species of the plant are toxic, and some parts of plant, especially the seeds, are potentially fatal if consumed because they contain cyano- genic glycosides. The columbine may be a carcinogen, so the medicinal or culinary use of the columbine is discouraged.

The Columbine in Literature

The columbine has also achieved significance in European culture. For instance, Columbine is a stock character of Commedia dell’Arte as the mistress of Harlequin, and in the traditional English pantomime, Columbine appears as a symbol of feminine beauty. The columbine has made appearances in several works of literature. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia speaks of columbines, alluding perhaps to their role in folklore as the flower of abandoned lovers.

Victoria Williams

Further Reading

Dyer, T. F. Thiselton. Folklore of Shakespeare. New York: Dover, 1966.

Nold, Robert. Columbines: Aquilegia, Paraquilegia, and Semiaquilegia. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2003.

Tenenbaum, Frances, ed. Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Vizgirdas, Ray S., and Edna M. Vizgirdas. Wild Plants of the Sierra Nevada. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2006.

Ward, Bobby J. A Contemplation upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1999.

Coneflower. See Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)

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