Columbine is the mountain goat of plants, seeking out cracks and crevices in rocks and often dangling precipitously from these high places like a tethered mountain climber. In the 1940s, North American naturalists once ranked columbine as the seventh most popular native wildflower. Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) occurs throughout the eastern half of the United States from Maine to Minnesota south to Florida and Texas. In Illinois, it is occasional to common throughout the state.
Columbine occurs in a variety of woodland habitats, but it is usually found in rocky woods. It seems to prefer rocky slopes, outcroppings, and ledges where the soil is scanty and limy (pH from 5 to 7.5). It is not unusual to find a clump of columbine growing in a handful of soil in a pocket on a huge boulder. Its flowers dangle on a thin stem.
Columbine is a perennial related to the buttercups, a member of the plant family Ranunculaceae. From a basal tuft of lobed, gray-green leaves, a tall, fibrous flower stem rises. The erect, branched stem can be up to 1 meter tall. Thin leaflets that are lobed, ovate, and green above and pale beneath are grouped along the stem. The upper leaves are three-parted.
Columbine blooms in Illinois from April to July. The flowers are scarlet, brightened by translucence and complemented by a yellow interior. They can be 5 cm long. The plant has five petals and five sepals, both colored alike. The petals are prolonged backwards into hollow spurs or tubes, which contain nectar deep inside. Hummingbirds easily sip the nectar from the flowers and in doing so pollinate them. Some bees and wasps will cheat the system by nibbling through the nectar end of the spur. Columbine fruits are cylindrical pods that open along the inner side, exposing two rows of smooth seeds. The buds and flowers of the plant hang inverted, whereas the fruit is erect.
The word columbine comes from the Latin columba and means dovelike, referring to the flowers, which appeared as a circle of doves to some people. The plant’s long spurs are the heads and shoulders of the birds while the petals are the bird’s wings. The genus name comes from Aquila, which means the eagle, referring to the flower spurs’ resemblance to eagle talons. It could also refer to Aqua meaning water and lego, to collect, referring to the nectar holding spurs.
Common names are varied and include rock bells (as the flowers are bell-shaped and the plants do thrive in rocky soil), rock lily, bells, meeting houses, cluckies, and Jack-in-trousers. Pioneer children would call the flowers honeysuckle, as they could bite off the tubes for the nectar inside.
Whatever you decide to call columbine, the discovery of one on spring walks is a delightful surprise. Maybe even the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson will come to mind, “A woodland walk, a quest for river-grapes, a mocking thrush, a wild rose or rock-living columbine, salve my worst wounds.”