Plant Profile: Columbine
I never really noticed Columbine until we moved to the mountains. I didn't see it much on the island I grew up on, and it certainly wasn't in the city. Once settled into our alpine home, I began noticing the nodding flowers on trail runs, hikes and walks along our road. It's always been a dream of mine to have wildflowers in my yard. Both my husband and I agree that nothing is more pleasing or puts us more at ease. The birds, bees, and butterflies concur.
Many varieties of Columbine abound. Barlow Columbine with it's upscaled petals can be a lot to take in. Petticoat Columbine holds layers of frilly, pleated petals, reminiscent of its name. Some are multi-colored, others Victorian pink. Rocky Mountain blue, sunset red, black velvet and every shade of purple. A few are all white. Understated by comparison, the muted clover leaves fade back into the surrounding vegetation, easily overlooked.
Like many alpine flowers, their delicate beauty does not undermine their hardy growing habits. Self-supporting roots draw water through long periods of drought. Preferring shade, they will self-sow (new hybrids form as different varieties come into contact). With dwarf varieties beginning at 3 inches, larger types reach up to 3 feet. The blooming season stretches from early spring to mid-summer.
Studied for its evolutionary adaptations and range in petal spur length, Columbine can be traced back to a single mother variety found in Eastern Europe and Asia. Research suggests the seed was carried across the Bering Strait ice bridge during the last ice age.
With a latin name of "Aquilegia," some believe it to be named after Aquila (meaning Eagle), for it's uncanny resemblance to an eagle talon. Other theories suggest "water collector" (Aquilegus), and a ring of doves (Columba being Latin for Dove). Containing more than 60 known species (including a variety named for Charles Darwin's granddaughter Nora Barlow), Columbine grows in meadows and woodlands and favors high altitudes in the Northern Hemisphere (USDA zones 3-8).
Put to use by native tribes, infusions soothed conditions such as headaches, fever, heart and kidney issues, and served as a wash for poison ivy. Pulverized seeds made love charms, perfume and detected bewitchment.
I love Columbine for its long, slender stems that elegantly bend, supporting an intricate and wild collection of petals. I find it hard to pluck Columbine because to do so feels like disturbing a thing of beauty that belongs in nature. Sometimes though, once the leaves have fallen, I'll pluck a few stems. I find the bending and twisting to carry with it pleasing shapes. These I'll stick in an apothecary jar on the kitchen table to watch as they bend and twist with time, creating new shapes and stories.
To Grow Columbine
An old-fashioned garden plant cultivated since the 1600s, growing Columbine is easy. Choose from a wealth of varieties suited to your environment and scatter the seeds in early Spring. Columbine prefers slightly acidic, sandy soil with decomposing organic matter. It will grow in clay soil if well-drained. Some suggest more care, such as fertilizing and watering by hand. I prefer to let the plant harden and adapt, allowing mother nature to take over for me. I like the native plants I grow to thrive independent of my care, as they would in the wild. Often this means getting extra seed and tossing freely to account for a loss in germination. Flowers will not produce the first year. When the tender stems crawl their way out the following spring, their elegance and untamed beauty will not go underappricated.
Columbine is not intended for human or animal consumption.