(Aquilegia Canadensis) Crowfoot family
Flower - Red outside, yellow within, irregular, 1 to 2 in. long,
solitary, nodding from a curved footstalk from the upper
leaf-axils. Petals 5, funnel-shaped, but quickly narrowing into
long, erect, very slender hollow spurs, rounded at the tip
united below by the 5 spreading red sepals, between which the
straight spurs ascend; numerous stamens and 5 pistils projecting.
Stem: 1 to 2 ft. high; branching, soft-hairy or smooth. Leaves:
More or less divided, the lobes with rounded teeth; large lower
compound leaves on long petioles. Fruit: An erect pod, each of
the 5 divisions tipped with a long, sharp beak.
Preferred Habitat - Rocky places, rich woodland.
Flowering Season - April-July.
Distribution - Nova Scotia to the Northwest Territory; southward
to the Gulf States. Rocky Mountains.
Although under cultivation the columbine nearly doubles its size,
it never has the elfin charm in a conventional garden that it
possesses wild in Nature's. Dancing in red and yellow petticoats
to the rhythm of the breeze, along the ledge of overhanging
rocks, it coquettes with some Punchinello as if daring him to
reach her at his peril. Who is he? Let us sit a while on the
rocky ledge and watch for her lovers.
Presently a big muscular bumblebee booms along. Owing to his
great strength, an inverted, pendent blossom, from which he must
cling upside down, has no more terrors for him than a trapeze for
the trained acrobat. His long tongue - if he is one of the
largest of our sixty-two species of Bombus - can suck almost any
flower unless it is especially adapted to night-flying sphinx
moths, but can he drain this? He is the truest benefactor of the
European columbine (q.v.), whose spurs suggested the talons of an
eagle (aquila) to imaginative Linnaeus when he gave this group of
plants its generic name. Smaller bumblebees, unable through the
shortness of their tongues to feast in a legitimate manner, may
be detected nipping holes in the tips of all columbines, where
the nectar is secreted, just as they do in larkspurs, Dutchman's
breeches, squirrel corn, butter and eggs, and other flowers whose
deeply hidden nectaries make dining too difficult for the little
rogues. Fragile butterflies, absolutely dependent on nectar,
hover near our showy wild columbine with its five tempting horns
of plenty, but sail away again, knowing as they do that their
weak legs are not calculated to stand the strain of an inverted
position from a pendent flower, nor are their tongues adapted to
slender tubes unless these may be entered from above. The tongues
of both butterflies and moths bend readily only when directed
beneath their bodies. It will be noticed that our columbine's
funnel-shaped tubes contract just below the point where the
nectar is secreted - doubtless to protect it from small bees.
When we see the honeybee or the little wild bees - Haliclus
chiefly - on the flower, we may know they get pollen only.
Finally a ruby-throated hummingbird whirs into sight. Poising
before a columbine, and moving around it to drain one spur after
another until the five are emptied, he flashes like thought to
another group of inverted red cornucopias, visits in turn every
flower in the colony, then whirs away quite as suddenly as he
came. Probably to him, and no longer to the outgrown bumblebee,
has the flower adapted itself. The European species wears blue,
the bee's favorite color according to Sir John Lubbock; the
nectar hidden in its spurs, which are shorter, stouter, and
curved, is accessible only to the largest humblebees. There are
no hummingbirds in Europe. (See jewel-weed.) Our native
columbine, on the contrary, has longer, contracted, straight,
erect spurs, most easily drained by the ruby-throat which, like
Eugene Field, ever delights in "any color at all so long as it's
To help make the columbine conspicuous, even the sepals become
red; but the flower is yellow within, it is thought to guide
visitors to the nectaries. The stamens protrude like a golden
tassel. After the anthers pass the still immature stigmas, the
pollen of the outer row ripens, ready for removal, while the
inner row of undeveloped stamens still acts as a sheath for the
stigmas. Owing to the pendent position of the flower, no pollen
could fall on the latter in any case. The columbine is too highly
organized to tolerate self-fertilization. When all the stamens
have discharged their pollen, the styles then elongate; and the
feathery stigmas, opening and curving sidewise, bring themselves
at the entrance of each of the five cornucopias, just the
position the anthers previously occupied. Probably even the small
bees, collecting pollen only, help carry some from flower to
flower but perhaps the largest bumblebees, and certainly the
hummingbird, must be regarded as the columbine's legitimate
benefactors. Caterpillars of one of the dusky wings (Papilio
lucilius) feed on the leaves.
Very rarely is the columbine white, and then its name, derived
from words meaning two doves, does not seem wholly misapplied.
"O Columbine, open your folded wrapper
Where two twin turtle-doves dwell,"
lisp thousands of children speaking the "Songs of Seven" as a
first "piece" at school. How Emerson loved the columbine! Dr.
Prior says the flower was given its name because "of the
resemblance of the nectaries to the heads of pigeons in a ring
around a dish - a favorite device of ancient artists."
This exquisite plant was forwarded from the Virginia colony to
England for the gardens of Hampton Court by a young kinsman of
Tradescant, gardener and herbalist to Charles I.
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