So often I tend to forget that many of the beautiful cultivated flowers in gardens are actually native wildflowers that have been “domesticated”. The columbine, a plant treasured by gardeners, falls into this category. (Another extensively cultivated wildflower is the bleeding heart.) There are at least eight species of columbine native to the western United States. One columbine species, the blue columbine, is the Colorado State Flower.
The red columbine (Aquilegia formosa) is found in the Pacific States as far east as Montana. Preferring moist, partially shaded locations, red columbine can be found along stream banks, near springs and ponds in woodlands or on damp mountain slopes from sea level to timberline. Also called western columbine or crimson columbine, this member of the buttercup family has erect stems up to a meter tall (3.28 feet). The stems, coming out of a tap root, are usually hairless below and somewhat glandular near the flowers. The mostly basal leaves are three lobed, green above with a glaucous (powdery) underside. The two to five nodding flowers on each stem are dramatic. Five crimson red elongated petals are turned backwards and upwards to form spurs with bulbous, glandular tips. The forward portions of the petals resemble yellow blades. A central tuft of stamens protrudes. What a gorgeous flower.
The flowers of red columbine are sweet and can be consumed in small quantities, say as a garnish on a salad or a trail nibble. However, the remainder of the plant, particularly the seeds and root, are very toxic and should not be consumed. That said, I have tasted a flower, but since that one sample, prefer to only visually enjoy columbines.
Native American children were told that if they picked columbine flowers it would rain. I doubt it! Other indigenous people and ancient herbalists used pulped red columbine root to help sores form a scab and also used the plant for a variety of ailments, including dizziness and aching joints. Modern herbalists, because if its toxicity, rarely use columbine.
The genus and common names are derived from Latin. Since some people feel the spurred petals look like an eagle’s claws, the genus comes from “aquila” meaning “eagle”. The common name, from “columbina”, means “dove like”. The arched petals and spurs are reminiscent of a quintet of doves arranged on a ring about a dish – at least someone thought so.
These red columbines were growing along Ash Creek in Lassen County CA. What a treat to find a patch of these spectacular wildflowers along the trail.