Plant of the Week
Utah Columbine (Aquilegia scopulorum)
By Charmaine Delmatier, 2014
Utah columbine (Aquilegia scopulorum) 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. Utah columbine is known from Nevada and Utah on subalpine rocky slopes, forests, and adjacent meadows between 6,500 and 11,500 feet. It has only been reported in Colorado and Wyoming.
It’s interesting that 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 about ready to take off for flight.
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 often have spurs that run between the sepals. The flowers are bisexual and have a radial symmetry. The flowering period spans from June to August.
Plant height can range from 2 to 12 inches tall. The foliage of Utah columbine is glabrous and the basal leaves are 2-3 times ternately (in threes) compound, with reduced leaves upwards. The flowers in comparison are large and erect with the sepals perpendicular to the floral axis and usually spreading, ranging from 15 to 22 millimeters in length. The blades are white, blue, reddish purple, and 8 to 14 millimeters long. The spurs are straight and are blue to white to reddish purple. They can range from 25 to 40 millimeters long. The numerous stamens do not extend beyond the blades. The five fruits are slender pods (follicles) splitting open along the inner side.
Historically, flowers of various species of columbine were consumed in moderation with other fresh greens, and reported to be quite sweet. If consumed in small quantities, it was considered safe to ingest the flowers. However, once mature, the seeds and roots can be highly poisonous if consumed. They contain cardiogenic toxins which may cause both severe gastroenteritis and heart palpitations. Native Americans did use very small amounts of Aquilegia root as a treatment for ulcers.