Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
I credit columbine with being one of the flowers that fueled my interest in gardening years ago. Granted, I grew up in a family that gardened, but much of my involvement was limited to chores like weeding in the family vegetable garden or around the yard. As I got older I was clamoring for a garden of my own. Having no source of income as a youngster, my first attempts at my own garden were in fact wildflowers (or weeds, according to my parents) that I had transplanted from other parts of our yard.
It was seeing wild Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, growing along a roadside in Wisconsin that marked my first adventure into collecting seed and successfully germinating a perennial for my garden. These were unlike any of the wildflowers I had collected previously. They were somewhat rare in the landscape, occurring only occasionally, never in the long swaths that some wildflowers blanket. That success led to more seed collecting, and eventually purchasing seed and plants with hard-earned babysitting money.
What catches most people's eyes, including my own, is the unique geometry of the columbine flower. It has five petals, each fused into a tube-like structure ending in a long spur. The flowers are held above the foliage in clusters on long stems, each flower nodding in the wind like little paper lanterns. In the wild columbine, the inner portion of each petal is yellow, and the outer portion including the spur is red. Aquilegia canadensis is the species of columbine naturally occuring primarily east of the Mississippi River. Colorado or Rocky Mountain Blue Columbine, Aquilegia caerulea , is native west of the Mississippi River with soft blue outer petals and light blue to white inner petals. Many hybrids have been developed that expand the columbine's color palette into just about any combination imaginable.
Both the Latin and common names for columbine make reference to the flower's unique shape. The genus Aquilegia comes from the Latin "aquilnum" meaning "eagle-like" or "water collector", referring either to the talon-like shape of the flower, or it's tendency to collect water on its petals. The common name columbine is from the Latin "columba" meaning dove, again referring to the shape of the flower.
The foliage of columbine is attractive even when flowers are not present. Lobed leaves in a soft green blue form a soft mound in shade to semi-shade. A full sun exposure is really too much for the delicate columbine and will likely cause some leaf scorch. They naturally occur at the edge of the forest in the dappled shade of trees, so reproducing these conditions in the garden will give the best results. As with most plants, well-drained soil is a must. Columbine prefer somewhat moist, rich soil, although they will tolerate a fairly wide range of soil types. A good rule of thumb is that the sunnier the location, the more water columbine requires.
There are relatively few pests and diseases which regularly affect columbine. Leaf miners typically chew intricate tunnels in the foliage, but rarely pose a real threat to the plant other than its appearance. Some people find the leaf miner damage attractive in itself! Columbine can be susceptible to mildew, and may look somewhat ragged after the blooms fade. This is not life-threatening for the plant, but many people prefer to plant other perennials with columbine to hide their less-than-perfect post-bloom form.
There are a host of legends surrounding the columbine. One says that the columbine flower is a symbol of foolishness, since it resembles a jester's cap and bells. This connection with foolishness fuels some people's belief that it is bad luck to give this flower to a woman.
A more widespread association is of the columbine with the Virgin Mary. As columbine flowers age, the petals fall from the plant and each individual petal with spur attached resembles a slipper. The legend says columbine plants arose wherever Mary stepped on her way to visit her cousin Elizabeth, so sometimes columbine goes by the common name Our Lady's Shoes or the Virgin Mary's Shoes. Other religious associations describe the columbine flower's resemblance to a dove as representing the Holy Spirit.