Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)
Culverwort (Saxon), European Columbine, True Columbine, European Crowfoot, Culverwort, Granny’s Bonnet, Granny’s Nightcap
About This Plant
There are many different types of Columbines with a tremendous amount of variation. The species cross-pollinate, giving rise to new colors and qualities and your notion of what a Columbine looks like has a lot to do with where you live. Columbines are herbaceous perennials related to Anemones and Buttercups in the Ranunculaceae family. Aquilegia vulgaris is also referred to as European Columbine and has blue to purple sepals with white petals, stigma, and stamens. “Vulgaris” simply means “common”. Aquilegia canadensis has red sepals and spurs on the outside of yellow petals, stigmas, and stamens inside. European Columbine is introduced in North America and is found throughout New England in fields, roadsides, waste areas, gardens, and forest edges. Different species of Columbines can be found wild throughout the U.S., particularly in Colorado. Columbines tend to cross-pollinate, hybridize, and self-seed freely, creating new strains and colors. They are hardy to USDA zone 3 and are not frost tender.
Columbines grow in full sun to partial shade and need very little extra care. They are naturally happier in the dappled shade of woodland edges or shaded grasslands, which in a garden translates to the leeward side of a shrub or the middle of a border. They usually prefer dry and calcareous soils. They are deep-rooted plants that seek water well. The stalk is erect, sparsely haired, and usually branched at the top, growing 1-2 feet high. Stalks are slender and branch into a loose head of flowers which are 1 ½ – 2 inches in diameter and drooping. The name “Aquilegia” comes either from the Latin Aquila, meaning eagle, and refers to the spurs of the flowers resembling an eagle’s talons or from the Latin “aquam legere” meaning “to collect water” in reference to the flower’s funnel-like shape where moisture is collected. It is also said that “Columbine” comes from the Latin “columba”, meaning a dove or pigeon, from the idea that the flowers resemble a flight of these birds. The distinctive spurs of the flowers hold nectar which draws pollinators such as hummingbirds, hawk moths, and bumblebees. The petals have a quite complicated structure that invites close inspection, by the scientist, artist, and gardener alike. Flowers have a scent like hay and blossom from April to June.
The fruit is composed of five carpels, cylindrical in form with pointed ends like a cluster of little pea-pods. Each seed vessel contains many smooth, dark-colored seeds that are freely shed when ripe so that the parent plant is generally the center of a small colony of seedlings. Fruiting lasts from July to August. The formation of seeds will shorten the productive lifespan of the plant, so removing the spent flowers promptly will extend its lifespan. Columbines tend to lose vitality after four to five years.
Columbines have shared a rich cultural history. In ancient Greek and Roman cultures, the spur provoked an allusion to phalli and Columbine was a plant of Aphrodite (Venus). It was a favorite old-fashioned garden flower, grown as an ornamental and as a medicinal plant since medieval times. In Celtic culture, the flowers were supposed to open the door to the “other world”. In Christian traditions, Columbine also played a role. The tripartite leaves were seen as symbols of the Trinity. Seven Columbine flowers presented together were interpreted as the seven gifts of the holy spirit. Its symbolism found its way into Medieval art. Its frequent depictions, according to Lober (1988) were a sign of redemption and often appeared close to the plant Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara). Columbine is seen as a religious symbol of purity and is often depicted with the Virgin Mary.
Columbines are easy to start from seed and winter sow themselves effortlessly. Seeds can be planted directly outdoors in the Fall, from September to October. Sprinkle the seeds and cover with a small amount of soil. Seeds will germinate by the following Spring. Stored seed can be sown in late winter indoors.They should germinate in 2-3 weeks and should be gradually acclimated to outdoor conditions for the 10 to 15 days before planting out after all risk of frost.
Plant Columbines about one foot apart. Seeds started indoors, should be acclimated to outdoor conditions prior to planting out in late Spring or early Summer. Plant division should happen in the Spring.
To cultivate find a cooler part of the garden that enjoys dappled shade. Columbine prefers light (sandy) and medium (loamy) soils and prefers well-drained, moist soils. They do not require any feeding and in fact, overfed plants tend to flop over and require staking. Divided specimens may take some time to establish since they don’t like having their roots disturbed. Contact with the sap may cause skin irritation, so gloves are advised. Their rounded foliage is attractive, even in Winter, but it will look more impressive when given a late-Autumn trim. Leaves can be cut right back and fresh foliage will appear. Columbine will hybridize with other members of the genus and usually become the dominant partner in any hybridization. Most species are short-lived, dying out after 3-4 years, though they usually produce seed prolifically. Plants are rabbit resistant.
Seed pods will turn from green to brown as seeds mature. A visual clue that seeds are ripe is when the funnel-shaped seed pods open to expose the seeds. You may even hear the seed pods rattle in strong winds or when you brush around them. Each pod contains many tiny dark seeds that can be collected, planted immediately, or stored in a cool dry place for future planting.
- Cottage/informal gardens, borders and beds, shade gardens, wildlife gardens, butterfly gardens
- Cut flowers
- Flowers are edible – the rest of the plant is toxic and should not be consumed internally.
- External medicinal applications
Columbine flowers are considered edible and make a beautiful sweet treat in salads and more. With the exception of flowers, all other parts of the Columbine plant are toxic and should not be consumed internally.
All oral administration of Columbine should be avoided, with the exception of the edible flowers. Columbine has a history of use as an herbal medicine since the Middle Ages and was used in many “blood purifying” herbal mixture, as well as for ailments such as high fever due to infectious disease, chronic rhinitis, and as a hepatic agent to treat jaundice and gallbladder ailments. It has astringent, antiseptic, and wound cleansing properties and the root has been used topically in the form of a lotion to treat eczema and to speed the healing of wounds and cuts. A decoction made from the seeds has been used as hair shampoo to get rid of head lice.
Aquilegia vulgaris is native to northern Africa and Europe. It has been naturalized in large parts of the eastern U.S., and Canada.