Reflections in Nature: Columbine brightens spirits

Many years ago, while walking through the woods, I found a patch of columbine flowers. Using my trusty knife, I dug up one plant and stuck it in an empty coffee cup.

At home, I presented the plant to my wife, Mary Alice, and she was as happy as if I had given her a dozen roses. It wasn’t long before she had planted the columbine in the flower garden.

That one single plant has multiplied and never fails to bloom during the month of May, in pastel shades of blue, violet, red, yellow and white.

The columbine belongs to the genus Aquilegia of perennial plants that are found in meadows, woodlots and at higher altitudes throughout the Northern Hemisphere. There are 70 species of columbines in the world, and about one third are native to North America.

The columbine belongs to the family Ranunculaceae (Buttercup family).

Columbine flowers are known for the spurred petals of their flowers. The genus name Aquilegia comes from the Latin aguila, which means eagle because the shape of the flower petals are said to resemble the claws of an eagle.

The common name of columbine comes from the Latin word columba, meaning dove because the flower held upside down resembles five doves clustered together.

The flowers are made up of five long spurs on a very long and slender stem that grows to a height of a foot or more. They hang down from the stems, with the spurs pointing upward. The leaves are divided several times.

Many common names come from the unusual shape of the flower: granny’s bonnet, often compared to an old-fashioned bonnet; honeysuckle, with a slight resemblance to the honeysuckle flower; meeting house or heads in a circle, supposedly the spurs resemble a group of heads together; and rock bells, for the shape of the flower and its natural habitat.

Early herbalists used the plant in treating many ailments. The juice of the plant was used in treating jaundice and abdominal pains.

Supposedly, the plant was used in curing measles and smallpox. It does contain an acid that could have a narcotic effect on some patients.

The seeds and roots of the plant contain carcinogenic toxins that are highly poisonous and can cause severe stomach problems and heart palpitations.

The columbine is visited by butterflies, moths and their caterpillars (mainly the cabbage moth, which is known for feeding on poisonous plants without any ill effects).

The Rocky Mountain Columbine (designated the official state flower of Colorado in 1899) was discovered in 1820 on Pike’s Peak, by mountain climber Edwin James. The Rocky Mountain columbine Aquilegia caerulea has a rich aroma, which attracts bees, hummingbirds and butterflies to its nectar.

After previously proposed, Colorado’s school children picked the blue columbine as the state flower because the blue is a symbol of the sky, the white represents snow and yellow symbolizes Colorado’s gold mining history.

A law was enacted in 1925 to protect the rare and delicate flower. The Colorado General Assembly wisely made it illegal to uproot the flower on public lands; the gathering of blossoms and buds was limited to 25 in one day and the flowers were not to be picked at all on private lands, without the consent of the landowners.

In 1915, “Where The Columbines Grow” became the official Colorado state song.

In many old paintings, the columbine represents the Dove of Peace, a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

Here, in Pennsylvania, we have two species of columbine that are common. The garden (European) columbines (Aquilegia vulgaris), which are found along roadsides and fields, have either blue, purple or white flowers that are about as wide as long, with stamens that do not protrude from the flower.

The wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis), which are commonly found in the woods, have scarlet flowers with yellow centers and long protruding stamens.

We have both flower species growing in our garden and also in places where they are not wanted, such as the driveway.

Columbine is a hardy perennial that propagates by seeds and grows just about anywhere but prefers partial shade. There are large numbers available because the European and North American varieties have crossed.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.