Compound leaf splits into 9-27, 3-lobed light green leaflets.
Family: Buttercup (Ranunculacea)
Height: To 2’ (60 cm)
Flowering: April - July
Habitat: Dry and Shaded Rocky, Wooded, or Open Slopes
Toxicity: Caution Recommended
Many explanations have been proposed for this flower’s common name. Columba is a Latin word meaning dove. This derivation may refer to the shape of the spurred petals, which resemble a ring of doves at a fountain. “Dove” may also refer to the way the flowers hang from the plant in the breeze. The gently swaying blossoms mimic a flock of birds in flight. Because a dove symbolizes peace, the common name has been used as further evidence supporting the candidacy of Columbine as America’s national flower.
Columbine was once considered America’s national flower because the petals resemble the talons of a bald eagle. Indeed, Aquilegia, which is Latin for eagle reinforced this misconception. The species name (canadensis) however suggests Canadian origin or site of initial identification.
Culverwort: Culver is Saxon meaning pigeon and wyrt means common plant. This name suggests the likeness of the flower to a circle of pigeon heads.
Dancing Fairies, Granny’s Bonnets, Meetinghouses: Refer to the shape of the backward pointing tubular petals, which have inspired imaginative common names.
Honeysuckle: Young children often mistake Columbine for Honeysuckle, pulling off the flowers and biting the spurs in search of nectar. Though no official records of toxicity have been reported for Columbine, it belongs to a family which contains other toxic species. Caution is advised.
Rock Bells, Rock Lily: Refers to the flower’s preferred habitat. Columbine is often found on rocky slopes or terrain. “Bell” and “lily” allude to the shape of the flower.
Columbine rewards those pollinators that can reach inside the hollowed spurs and find the nectar that hides inside. Due to the shape and color of the petals, Columbine attracts hummingbirds seeking its nectar. The yellow interior of the blossom and stamen are believed to act as guides for the bird. In areas where hummingbirds are not abundant, Columbine relies on other long-tongued insects including moths and some species of bees for pollination.
Insect-pollination is characteristic of non-native species of Columbine. European Columbine (A. vulgaris), a popular garden variety, is pollinated by bees. Contrary to Wild Columbine, the flowers of A. vulgaris are tipped horizontally inviting insect pollinators. The flower, which can be blue, violet, white, or yellow has shorter spurs which makes it easier for bee species attracted to the color to reach the nectar. Because hummingbirds are not native to Europe, it is important for cultivated varieties like A. vulgaris to have other means of pollination.
Insects lacking the appendages necessary to reach the nectar within the spurs steal it by boring inside the tube, bypassing the flower’s pollination system. Only the strongest insects however are able to rob Columbine of its nectar. Beyond supplying nectar, Columbine also provides food and shelter for other pests. Columbine leafminers (Phytomyza) and Erynnis lucilus, a type of moth, destroy various parts of the plant by eating holes through its foliage. Caterpillars have also been found curled up in the leaves of Columbine seeking shelter and rest from the outer elements.
Native Americans have used the flower– stem, leaves, and roots– to treat a variety of ailments including heart, urinary, and gastrointestinal problems. A remedy was prepared using a root-infused tea to treat headaches and fevers. A lotion containing Columbine was used to alleviate Poison Ivy inflammation and other skin rashes.
Columbine seeds were believed to speed childbirth when taken with wine. The medical validity of the treatment was questioned when children were poisoned by overdoses during labor. The ingredient was later replaced with other herbs that were more effective and less toxic than Columbine. Columbine is considered unsafe and therefore not used in any medicinal treatments today.
Love Potion: Meskwaki Indians believed that pulverized Columbine seeds combined with other “potion” ingredients could be used as a love charm. Men rubbed the mixture on their hands, using it as a “love perfume” to attract women. Columbine seeds were prized as a commodity of intertribal commerce.
Tobacco: Indian tribes used crushed columbine to sweeten smoked tobacco flavor and smell.
Honor: Columbine was used in New England to honor veterans. Flowers were gathered in order to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers on Memorial (or Decoration) Day.
Superstition: Columbine is emblematic of deserted, fallen, or unrequited love. Giving a woman a bouquet of Columbine was considered a sign that her husband or lover was unfaithful.