Plant of the Week
Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)
By Charmaine Delmatier, 2014
Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), also known as crimson columbine, has red sepals and spurs with yellow petal blades, a conspicuous color combination. It is a member of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, which has a global distribution with 50 genera and 1,800 species. The buttercup family is more abundant in temperate and cooler regions on both the northern and southern hemispheres. The genus Aquilegia has about 60-70 species in the northern hemisphere and all are herbaceous perennials. The flowering period spans June through August.
Western columbine occurs from coastal Alaska south through the Yukon Territory, to British Columbia and adjacent Alberta, Canada. In the lower 48 states, it is found in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, California, Nevada and Wyoming. Western columbine prefers moist areas in forests, woodlands, alpine and subalpine meadows. It will sometimes form hybrid swarms with yellow columbine (Aquilegia flavescens). Intermediate specimens having pinkish-red flowers with petal blades 5-6 mm long are occasionally found where these two species naturally grow together.
The flowers of Aquilegia have a distinctive appearance. They have five sepals and petals (sometimes 4), and the sepals are often brightly colored. The petals have spurs that run between the sepals. The flowers are bisexual and have a radial symmetry. For western columbine, the combination of flower color is striking with both red sepals and spurs contrasted with yellow blades. The flowers are nodding to hanging downwards and the spurs are straight.
The height of western columbine can reach as high as 40 inches with stems ranging between 6-40 inches tall. Basal leaves are compound and twice ternate (in threes) but much shorter than the stems and not crowded. The red sepals are perpendicular to the floral axis with stout red spurs that narrow abruptly near the middle. The yellow blades are rounded and the many stamens are easily seen as they extend beyond the blades. The fruiting structure is a pod-like follicle that ranges from 15-25 mm long.
It’s interesting that parts of both the scientific and common name refer to birds in flight. The name Aquilegia is derived from Latin for eagle, aquila; which refers to the spurred shape of the flower petals resembling an eagle's talon. The common name, ‘columbine’ comes from the Latin for "dove", due to the resemblance of the inverted flowers posing as five doves clustered together. When the wind is blowing, the swaying flowers look as if they are almost ready to take off in flight.
Historically, flowers of some of the columbine species were consumed in moderation with other fresh greens, and reported to taste quite sweet. If consumed in small quantities, it was considered safe to ingest the flowers. However, once mature, the seeds and roots from some species could be problematic if consumed. They contain cardiogenic toxins which may cause both severe gastroenteritis and heart palpitations. It has been reported that Native Americans did use very small amounts of Aquilegia root as a treatment for ulcers.
More specifically, there have been several uses for western columbine: seeds were chewed to alleviate stomach aches, and leaves were prepared as infusions to treat coughs, colds, and sore throats. The whole plant can be boiled and used as a hair wash, as well as utilizing the as a deterrent for hair lice. The seeds can also be used as an aromatic treatment; they can be crushed and used as body perfume, or as a sachet stored with clothes to add a fresh fragrance.