July 3, 2014


Aquilegia sp.
Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family)

Quick ID
Ternately divided leaves
Columbines are upright, rather delicate looking plants with basal leaves generally around 6" tall, and flowering stalks that can reach 2 1/2'.  The fruits are a distinctive follicle of five slender pods with extended pointy tips, clustered together and splitting open to release rather large black seeds.  Leaves are usually two times divided into threes (making nine leaflets per leaf), and mostly clustered at the base of the plant.  The flower stalk sports a few smaller leaves; for the most part they're fairly insignificant.
Pod-like fruits
The flowers, however, are unmistakable. Five colorful sepals encircle five (usually) lighter colored petals whose bases sweep back into knobby spurs.  Colorado columbine (A. coerulea) has light purpley-blue sepals, with straight spurs twice as long as the petals.  Another species  common in Montana, yellow columbine (A. flavescens) has lemony yellow sepals that sometimes run towards pink,  and the spurs are much squatter and more curled in.  Both have a waggly tuft of stamens and styles poking down from the center of the blossom.
Meadowrue - same leaves, different flower
Aquilegia leaves can be easily mistaken for another Ranunculaceae member, the meadowrue (Thalictrum sp.) that grows in similar spaces.  Once they're blooming it's easy to tell them apart; Thalictrum has inconspicuous flowers that can't compare to columbine's showy blossoms.
There are many species of Aquilegia in the US (five in Montana), with lots of varieties within themselves, and the species have a tendency to hybridize with each other as well.  That being said, color is not always a great way to tell species apart.  The morphology of the spurs and where the plant is found growing can provide better clues. 

Look for columbines in moist meadows and forests.  In Montana, A. coerulea has a smaller, more southerly range (extending from the lower quarter of the state and down to New Mexico) and prefers shadier sites.  A. flavescens can take more sun, and is pretty widespread in high elevations throughout western and central MT, on down to Utah and Colorado.
The pink sepals hint that this may be a hybrid of A. flavescens and A. formosa  (red columbine), a less common species that grows at lower elevations.  This photo was taken at Pine Creek in the Paradise Valley.

What's in a Name?
This plant is totally named for its looks.  Aquilegia probably comes from the Latin aquila, "eagle," for the spurs that look like talons.  Other sources claim the genus is derived from aqua (water) and lego (to collect), for the spurs' resemblance to ancient water urns.  The species name coerulea is quite common in the plant world, and means blue, while flavescens (and its equally common root flavens) means yellow.  The name "columbine" itself comes from the Latin word for dove, columba.  People say the flower looks like five little doves sipping from a water bowl together, tails poking towards the sky.

Columbines are pollinated by hummingbirds and hawk moths, who can reach deep into the flower to get at the nectar.  I've also seen plenty of bumblebees in my garden burrowing down into the tubes.  Growing up in Minnesota, red columbines (probably A. canadensis) were common, but we always knew them as "honeysuckles."  Indeed, it was my favorite thing as a wee one in the woods, to bite off the sweet little nectar-filled spur tips of these flowers.  Of course now I know that, like all these Ranunculaceae characters, Aquilegia can be pretty poisonous.  Eating a large enough quantity of the seeds, especially, can be dangerous and even fatal.  These toxic little seeds have been used in the past as a parasiticide to treat lice infestations as well.  Beautiful and deadly...

Wild Gardening
A. coerulea fitting into a shady woodland garden nicely, along with alumroot (Heuchera cylindrica), hosta, bleeding heart and bedstraw (Galium odoratum)
According to Lone Pine's totally awesome new Alpine Plants of the Northwest field guide, yellow columbines are Montana gardener's number one favorite native perennial herb.  And for good reason.  Most of us are forever on the lookout for an easy-to-grow plant with gorgeous blooms that does well in shady spaces.  These perennials are tolerant and adaptive, very easy to start from seed, and bloom in the thick of summer, late June to August.  I've noticed mine spreading over the years, filling in their shady nook, but not to the point of being obnoxious.  I've also noticed that, as the flowers start to fade, their almost always seems to be a collection of aphids gathered on the developing fruits.  This has never caused any problems in my garden whatsoever, but it does tend to make the protruding flower stalks look a little yucky.  At this point I usually snip those stalks off at the base, and enjoy the pretty foliage for the rest of the season.