Visit mountain towns throughout the Rocky Mountains and many other areas in the United States, and you’ll find columbines growing wild along stream beds and in woodlands, as well as in cultivated mountain gardens. These plants, with their delicate flowers and foliage, look fragile, but they’re actually among the hardiest of native plants.
In the wild, they often grow on soil that is little more than crushed granite. Soils may be highly acidic, with few nutrients. Water is sparse and temperatures harsh. Yet, these sturdy little plants emerge reliably every year to herald spring. Their bright colors bring cheer to humans and a source of food to birds and insects.
Columbines have a lot to recommend them in the home landscape, as well. They thrive in sun to partial shade. Although they prefer a well-drained, loamy soil, they grow in a variety of conditions. Their blooms disappear in early summer, but their lacy foliage makes an attractive landscape plant all season long. In fall, the foliage turns purple or red. Like many native plants, columbines are deer resistant too. Read on for more facts about the lovely columbine:
- Columbine was named for the Latin word columba, which means dove.
- Columbines belong to the buttercup family. The leaves have a characteristic narrow base that flares out to scalloped edges. Many columbines have gray-blue or blue-green foliage.
- Columbines bloom in the spring. Their delicate flowers are often multi-colored and may be white, red, yellow, blue, pink, lavender, red, or a combination of these shades.
- Columbines arrived in North America between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, according to the U.S. Forest Service. They migrated from Asia, across the Bering land bridge into Alaska.
- The deep-blue columbines found growing in the Rocky Mountain region are direct descendents of the earliest columbines.
- Columbines are wildflowers, native to most temperate regions of the world, including Europe and North America. There are over 70 species of columbines and innumerable hybrid species. Columbines cross-pollinate easily, so new species form frequently.
- Columbines form a long taproot, which helps them survive during periods of drought.
- Columbine plants typically grow 1 to 3 feet high and 2 feet wide, depending on the species. In full sun, their growth tends to be more compact and the plants flower more profusely. In shade, they become leggy.
- The columbine’s Latin genus name is Aquilegia, which refers to the flower’s five sepals, which resemble an eagle’s talons.
- The long spurs on the flowers produce nectar. For this reason, columbines are a favorite flower of hummingbirds, butterflies and bees. In woodland areas, the air almost hums as birds and insects seek out this nectar.
- Wild columbines grow in a variety of settings, from dry deserts to mountain woodlands.
- Columbines make a good choice in a naturalized garden setting. Birds and bees are attracted to their colorful blooms in the spring. Seedpods make tasty snacks for the birds in the fall.
- Columbines are perennials, but they’re not particularly long-lived. Most plants die within two to three years, but they grow easily from seed. If you allow seedpods to develop, new plants will appear every year, although the flowers may not always be true to the original plant.
- Native Americans used the seeds to make an infusion to treat headaches.
- The white and blue variety A. caerulea grows throughout the Rocky Mountains and is Colorado’s state flower. The flower was first discovered in 1820 by hiker Edwin James. School children voted in 1899 to make it the state’s flower. The state’s love affair with this flower continued, and in 1915 the song, “Where the Columbines Grow,” became Colorado’s state song. In 1925, the state gave the flower protected status.
- Columbine is the name of a city in Colorado, as well as several subdivisions and neighborhoods throughout the Littleton, Colorado community.
- Leaf miners make tunnels through the columbine leaves. Cut the leaves back after flowering to control this problem, which is unsightly, but rarely fatal to the plant.
- Because of their long taproot, columbines don’t transplant easily, so choose small plants and set them in a permanent location.
More Info on Columbines:
U.S. Forest Service: Celebrating Wildflowers: The Columbine Flower
Colorado State University Extension: Columbine