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Culturally and Historically Significant Flowers: Columbines

By Susanne Talbert (art_n_gardenApril 9, 2013
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Columbines (Aquilegia) are a wonderful companion or showcase plant in the garden. They also have a rich, sometimes little known cultural history and significance in America.

Gardening picture

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 15, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)

Columbine are beautiful perennials that look great in landscapes with many different styles such as cottage, wildlife, and butterfly gardens.  They tolerate a range of soils and come in a variety of heights from ten inches to four feet tall.  Columbine will grow in full sun to part shade and need very little extra care. Certain varieties date back to the 1600s and since then, the columbine has made quite a historical and cultural niche for itself [1].

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Aquilegia 'Winky Red and White Double' (Photo by Kell)

Historical Significance

The botanical name Aquilegia is Latin for eagle and references the spurs of the blossom, which resemble an eagle's talons. The eagle is also cited as a reference to the wing-like petals or the closed bud of the flowers which looks like an eagle's head.  Columbines are also known by the folk name "granny's bonnet" because of their visual appearance.

ImageImage
 Aquilegia vulgaris (Photo by asturnut) Aquilegia vulgaris 'Altrosa' (Photo by Weezingreens)
 

Native Americans were said to have used infusions from different parts of the plant for a variety of diseases ranging from heart problems to fever, and even to help relieve the pain of poison ivy [2].

The common name columbine comes from the Latin word columba, which means dove. When the blossom is flipped over, some people see a ring of doves drinking at a fountain.  Additionally, columbine were often used symbolically in art to represent the dove of peace or the Holy Spirit [3]

 
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'Nora Barlow' (Photo by JGaiser)
 

Colorado Significance

The columbine's significance in Colorado has an interesting back story.  In 1891, Colorado school children voted the Rocky Mountain columbine as their favorite flower over the cactus with a vote of 14,472 to 7,844. Subsequently in April of 1899, the columbine, specifically the lavender and white variety, was chosen as the official state flower of Colorado.  In 1925, the state legislated that columbines (this time specified as Aquilegia caerulea) are protected and cannot be dug from public land. 

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Rocky Mountain Columbine (Photo by celtic_dolphin)

Columbines can be found wild throughout the United States, particularly in Colorado.  The flowers cross pollinate easily so there is an astounding number of color combinations of columbines.  The columbine referred to as the Rocky Mountain columbine or Colorado columbine is the one with lavender blue petals and a white center.

Viewing Rocky Mountain Columbines

There's nothing quite like coming across native wildflowers on a sunny day while hiking or trekking through Colorado.  Some great places to find meadows of wild columbine in Colorado are:

Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, Colorado:  Here you'll find teeming groves of wildflowers including scarlet paintbrush, blue penstemons, orange sneezeweed, purple fringed gentians, and of course blue columbines [4].

San Juan National ForestDurango, Colorado:  In the southwestern corner of the state, you can find a completely different Colorado.  With wet winters and hot summers, San Juan National Forest is a wonderful place to spy wildflowers such as bluebell bellflower (Campanula rotundifolia) and elephanthead lousewort (Pedicularis groenlandica) in addition to columbines during the summer months.

Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, Crested Butte, Colorado: It is as wonderful as it sounds; this week-long festival celebrating wildflowers will happen this year from July 6 through 12.  Crested Butte calls itself the "Wildflower Capital of Colorado" so you could surely see plenty of columbine, penstemon, and more.

Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver, Colorado: A leader in drought-tolerant lanscaping and plant research, the DBG is an excellent place to view native as well as new cultivars of columbines in bloom during the summer. 

 

ImageImageImage
Aquilegia vulgaris (Photo by Gindee77)'Spitfire' (Photo by Christabelle) 'Texas Gold' (Photo by Htop)

 

As most Americans know, the columbine took on a new significance in 1999 after the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado.  To Coloradoans and other Americans, the columbine now represents the preciousness of life.  In Colorado, there is a specialty license plate available with a Rocky Mountain columbine and the words "Respect Life" on it.

 
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 (Photo courtesy of http://www.jamd.com/image/g/1326438)

Other native North American columbine that you might find in your neck of the woods:

Even if you can't make it to the Rockies this year to see some A. caerulea for yourself, it's likely that there are some wild columbine native to your area.  Keep an eye out for these particular varieties:

Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) - Also known as the Canadian or wild columbine, red columbine is native to eastern and central North America and is found from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, south to northern Florida, western Oklahoma and eastern Texas [5].

Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa) - Western columbine, also known as crimson columbine has striking red, nodding blooms with yellow centers.  This columbine is native to Alaska, western Canada, the Pacific Northwest, Montana down through Utah [6]

Serpentine Columbine (Aquilegia eximia) - This North American native grows wild in California and other parts of the western US.  The blooms are slightly less showy than other forms, but still exhibits the trademark columbine flower shape. 

Yellow Columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) - Yellow columbines have striking long spurs and a yellow-gold petal color.  They are native to Mexico and the southern US and will survive an enormous amount of abuse. 

 

Columbines are invaluable plants in the landscape as well as in the tapestry of America's history.  If you don't have any in your garden, consider growing them this year.  They are surprisingly easy to start from seed and winter sow effortlessly.  Check out Jill's article on wintersowing columbines for a simple spring-fever buster! 

 

All images in the article were found in Dave's Garden PlantFiles.  Thumbnail image of Rocky Mountain Columbine by Poppysue.

Sources Cited:

[1]. http://www.soonerplantfarm.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/specials.specDetail/recID/21/index.htm

[2] http://www.theflowerexpert.com/content/aboutflowers/stateflowers/colorado-state-flowers

[3] http://perennial-plants.suite101.com/article.cfm/columbine_history_and_culture

[4] http://away.com/tripideas/rocky-mountain-national-park-nature-300717.html

[5] http://209.85.173.132/search?q=cache:-wJP9YwHz5AJ:plants.usda.gov/plantguide/doc/pg_aqca.doc+native+american+columbine&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=4&gl=us

[6]  http://www.rainyside.com/features/plant_gallery/nativeplants/Aquilegia_formosa.html

http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/248733/pink_columbine_flowers_a_secret_love_pg2.html?cat=32

http://www.netstate.com/states/symb/flowers/co_columbine.htm

http://www.50states.com/flower/colorado.htm


  About Susanne Talbert  
Susanne TalbertI garden in beautiful Colorado Springs, half a mile from Garden of the Gods. Since we bought our first house two years ago, I have been busy revamping my 1/4 acre of ignored decomposed granite. My garden passions include water gardening, vines, super-hardy perennials, and native xerics. By day, I am a high school ceramics teacher as well as a ceramicist and painter.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Some additional Columbine trivia... halb 0 1 Apr 15, 2013 4:46 AM
Have some from my great grand mother! dibaston 1 9 May 20, 2009 2:11 PM
Nice! darius 2 28 May 19, 2009 2:14 PM
History and Horticulture Noturf 0 10 May 18, 2009 6:57 PM
Columbineone of my favorites GigiWilliams 0 16 May 18, 2009 1:16 PM
Colorado in July! bookworm28 1 27 May 15, 2009 6:17 PM
cant get enough columbine digging_dirt 2 62 May 15, 2009 6:15 PM
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