GARDEN WISDOM: I love columbine!

Mark Macdonald
By Mark Macdonald
May 17th, 2013

The second half of May heralds the blooms of Columbine here in south coastal BC. The flowers only appear for a couple of weeks, but it’s so worth the wait. Take a walk through the UBC Botanical Gardens at this time of year, and you’ll see many variations on the theme, although only a sampling of the 70 or so species that exist. The flowers have an aesthetic attraction for me, in terms of simple beauty and daintiness. But the academic side of my personality cannot see past the flowers as potent symbols of Darwinian evolution. After all, the flowers are most notable for their petal spurs, which vary in length from a few millimeters to the extravagant 15cm (6 inches!) of Aquilegia longissima. Each species of Columbine evolved to provide nectar to a specific, small group of pollinators, depending on the apparatus used to collect the nectar. Bees, moths, wasps, hover flies, and even hummingbirds may feed on the nectar within those spurs.

The petal spurs led to the English common name Columbine as well as the Latin genus Aquilegia, both because of supposed similarities to birds. Columbine derives from the Latin family name for doves, Columbidae, because the spurs are meant to resemble five doves in a group. I can’t quite see this, but there you are. Aquilegia arose from the genus of eagles called Aquila, because of the resemblance of the flower to an outspread eagle talon. Again, this wouldn’t have made my top five best names, but we’ve got it so we’ll use it.

Aquilegia is a hardy (to Zone 3) perennial that grows well in full sun, but being a woodland plant, prefers partial shade. As each bloom fades, a five-pointed fruit follows (botanists would call it a follicle) that dries naturally on the plant before opening at the top – a bit like poppies do. The seeds are very easy to collect, and if you leave them alone, most species will self sow. All parts of the Columbine plant are mildly toxic, including the flowers. Despite this, you ought to plant some in your garden. The seeds work really well if you collect them in the summer from newly opened fruits, and just scatter them in late summer or fall where you want them to grow. Fall planted seeds produce plants that will likely bloom in the first year.

— originally published on Garden Wisdom

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