Dear Readers, this seems to have been a particularly good year for columbines.They are the quintessential cottage garden plant, but I was surprised to discover that the small flowered blue form, as seen above, is a native. Because various forms of columbine are grown so frequently in the garden it’s hard to determine what the actual range of the plant is, but Aquilegia, a genus of about 70 species, are found throughout the northern hemisphere. Aquilegia vulgaris seems to like calcium-rich soils, woodland areas and damp grassland, and is most common in the south and west of the UK – I found the flowers in the photos today in Somerset and Dorset.
Columbine has many, many local names. Most refer to the shape of the flowers: my Vickery’s Folk Flora tells me that the plant is known as ‘Doves-in-the-ark’ in Somerset; the name ‘Columbine’ comes from the Latin word for dove, ‘columba‘, with the inverted flower being said to resemble five doves clustered together. In Yorkshire it’s called ‘Fool’s hat’, a reference to flower’s resemblance to a jester’s cap. In Wiltshire it bears the name of ‘Granny-jump-out-of-bed’, possible because the petals resemble a skirt, though why granny was wearing her clothes in bed would probably make a story all on its own. ‘Aquilegia’ means ‘eagle-like’, and this is because the petals are supposed to look like an eagle’s claw.
The wild form of columbine is usually dark blue, though it can also be found in pale pink and white. However, the ‘domesticated’ forms come in a huge variety of colours and flower shapes. Here are a selection: first, the cultivar ‘Magpie’
Then this rather pretty blue cultivar
And a double-flowered one for good measure.
What is interesting about the structure of the columbine, however, is that it is the spurs at the back of the flower hold the nectar. The length of these structures varies from species to species, but in all wild plants the spurs have evolved to match the bird or insect that pollinates it. In California, Aquilegia pubescens (also known as the Sierra columbine) is a high-altitude plant that has white flowers, and spurs up to 5 centimetres long. The plant is pollinated by hawk moths, insects with a liking for white-flowered plants and with a tongue long enough to reach the nectar.
At lower altitudes, from Alaska to Baja California is the crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa). Its red colour and much shorter spurs are a giveaway that its main pollinators are hummingbirds (most red-flowered wild plants were originally bird-pollinated). In between there are a whole host of hybrids between the two species, illustrating the way that the plant is adapting to the chief pollinators in each area. The process illustrates the way that plants and pollinators are locked into a dance of evolution, with each dependent on the other.
For anyone who would like a closer look at the structure of the columbine flower, I recommend the UK Microscopy website, which has many fascinating insights. One of these days I shall treat myself to a microscope, maybe for my fast-approaching sixtieth birthday – I love the way that a close-up view reveals so many wonders. But in the meantime I shall keep going to UK Microscopy for my high-magnification fix.
In the UK, columbine is a good bee plant, and is a nice choice for a woodland garden. It attracts mainly long-tongued bumblebees, and as seven of these species are considered endangered, it is well worth popping a few columbines into your understorey (should you have one). The bumblebee with the longest tongue in the UK is the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum), who has a tongue which can reach 2 cms long and is hence a match for any native columbine. My advice is to avoid the highly-bred fancy cultivars, and go for the dark blue natives. Plus, you don’t have to worry about isolating individual cultivars or even species in order to get them to ‘come true’ – as we have seen, columbines hybridize at the drop of a hat.There seems to be some debate over whether Aquilegia vulgaris (‘our’ columbine) is poisonous – they are members of the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family, and are closely related to monkshood (Aconitum napellus), described as ‘the most toxic wild plant in Britain’. Some sites described the roots and stems as being toxic, and on the Poison Garden website, the dark columbine (Aquilegia atrata), which is native to northern Europe, is said to have been used to cause miscarriage. However, there are no recorded cases of poisoning, and it is often a favourite in children’s gardens because of its interesting flowers and bee-attracting properties. Plus, certain Native American tribes have long eaten the flowers, which I imagine are very sweet due to the concentrated nectar that they contain.
St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) used the plant medicinally as a treatment for swollen glands, and it was also used to hasten childbirth. As with most herbal remedies, the dosage and the wisdom and understanding with which the plants were used has been largely lost, to all of our detriment.
Many species of moth caterpillar munch upon the poor old columbine, and one of them is the saddleback looper, the larva of The Engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia). The moth is not particularly exciting to look at, but I include it here because I have learned that the word ‘engrailed’ means ‘to have semicircular indentations along the edge’ in heraldry. You’re welcome.
A plant which has been grown in the UK since the 13th century is bound to have attracted some folklore, and one story is that lions ate columbine in order to give themselves strength – it was said that, to get the courage of a lion, all you needed to do was to rub the plant over your hands. However, if you are female and someone gives you a bunch of columbine, this is an indication that you are said to have ‘flexible morals’, and I think you would be well within your rights to summon up the courage of a lion and ‘clip them round the ear’ole’ as my Dad used to say.
And, of course, a poem or two. When I looked for ‘Columbine poems’, I found many, many works about the school shooting at Columbine, a great outpouring of grief and rage and questioning. But I was most intrigued by, firstly, this work by Melissa Stein, who we encountered a few weeks ago writing about lily of the valley.
by Melissa Stein
Dear columbine, dear engine.
Mere water will force a flower
open. Then with a touch
the beautiful intact collapses
into color filament and powder.
It’s all my fault. All hands on deck
to help collect what’s spilled.
That could be me beneath
a bridge. Torn up beside the road,
a bloat of skin and fur.
Afloat in bathtub, clean,
blue-lipped, forgiven. Face-down
in the snow. Why do you
imagine these terrible things?
asks my mother, or her
ghost. Because the paper’s
crisp and white. Because
no slate’s unwritten.
Because the ant that scaled
this flower head
has nowhere else to go.
And to end on a less distressing note, here is Emily Dickinson. There is a fine blogpost here by someone who is reproducing Emily Dickinson’s garden, and what a lovely idea that is.
It’s Father’s Day here today as I write, and for some reason this poem made me think of my mother. See what you think.
by Emily Dickinson
Glowing in her bonnet-
Glowing in her cheek-
Glowing is her Kirtle-
Yet she cannot speak.
Better as the Daisy
From the summer hill
Save by tearful rill-
Save by loving sunrise
Looking for her face.
Save by feet unnumbered
Pausing at the place.
Photo One by By JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5516707
Photo Two by By Dcrjsr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10776732
Photo Three by Dcrjsr – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50586172
Photo Four By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5491242
Photo Five by Roo72 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
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