Plant of the Week
Colorado Columbine (Aquilegia caerulea James)
By Steve Popovich
Colorado columbine’s beautiful blooms tempt pollinators and people alike to take a closer look. In summer, its beautiful white sepals and violet, lavender, or blue petals add vivid color to the landscape, where plants can occur in the hundreds. All-blue forms of the large flower can occur, as can spur-less varieties.
This several-foot tall perennial herb is found across the Rocky Mountains, from the foothills to the alpine, where it is often common in aspen groves, open forests, meadows, and talus slopes. Because it is so showy and its flowers bloom throughout the growing season, this plant is well-photographed and very popular among wildflower enthusiasts, particularly in Colorado, where it is the State Flower. Coincidentally, the colors of its flower are also found in the Colorado State flag.
Traditionally placed in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), it is also sometimes placed in the hellebore family (Helleboraceae), based upon its fruit being a follicle rather than an achene. The scientific name Aquilegia, derived in 1753 by none other than the famous biologist Linneaus, comes from Latin, aqua, water, + legere, to collect, referring to the water collected at the base of the spur, or from Latin aquil, eagle, referring to its spurs resembling the talons of an eagle. The specific epithet, caerulea, is also sometimes spelled coerulea. The common name “columbine” is from the Latin word for dove, and refers to a supposed resemblance of the buds or flowers to groups of doves. Columbine species can hybridize when co-occurring, and other species have red or yellow flowers, some with shortened spurs.
The next time you go for a mid-summer walk in columbine country, look for this special flower to brighten your day.