The Columbine flower has five unusually long tubular channels that lead to the nectar at the very top, an arrangement best suited for its primary pollinator, the ruby-throated hummingbird.

Common Name: Columbine, Rock bells, Meeting houses, Cluckies, Rock-lily, Honeysuckle, Jack-in-trousers – Columba is Latin for “dove” with the implication that dovelike is the intended metaphor for the flower that resembles five doves with uplifted tails and descending wings.

Scientific Name: Aquilegia canadensisAquila is Latin for eagle as the name of the genus. An avian appearance is again the likely etymology, the eagle of war supplanting the dove of peace. The species name attests to its first being identified and classified in Canada.

Potpourri: Like a five-pointed crimson crown for elven kings, the columbine evokes the magical spirits of rocky uplands. It appears as the summer sequel to the spring ephemeral flowers that emerge before the trees leaf out to attract early pollinators,  persisting well into the year to entice more persistent nectar collectors. A splash of red dangling from the end of a two foot long stout stem called a caudex cannot be overlooked even by the most myopic and oblivious of passers-by. It looks like different things to different people according to culture and custom. The original name columbine was assigned to the European variant (A. vulgaris) using the prevailing Romance languages to refer to a cluster of little columbae, doves in Latin. The American variant (A. canadensis) was afforded the rich diversity of colloquialisms that arose locally as pockets of immigrants settled in new communities and independently gave it their own apt mnemonic. Rock bells is perhaps the most obvious, as yellow stamens dangling underneath like a clapper must be  intended for ringing. Since they grow in rocky areas, rock lilies is also useful since lilies are bell-shaped. Meeting houses is a bit more imaginative, and may be a translation from a Native American name as a colorful five-poled tepee for tribal gatherings. Honeysuckle is a compound word for any flower with a long shaft that may be plucked to extract the honey-like nectar. While Jack-in-trousers does have lascivious implications, it is likely innocuous, like Jack-in-the-pulpit. Jack was a common English term for an unkempt young man and donning red trousers to stand out in the crowd with insouciance would make sense. [1] It is not possible to rule out, however, that something Jack concealed underneath might have been the original intent.

Like all things in nature, the peculiar shape of the columbine is not without reason. The only function of a flower is to attract a mobile pollinator to a sessile plant to carry  male anther pollen from one flower to the female pistil ovary of another. The genetic variation that this imbues is why sex evolved, fun has nothing to do with it. Cursory inspection of the wild columbine blossom reveals its most telling feature, the sweet honeypot of nectar at the very top of the “dove tails” is almost impossible to reach. It is apparent that the intent of the gradual natural selection that created this cul-de-sac was to favor a specific pollinator. That this occurs has been demonstrated irrevocably many times. The most famous example is none other than Erasmus Darwin, who had received a shipment of orchids from Madagascar which included one with an exceptionally long nectary; writing to a friend at the Kew Botanical Gardens, he noted that “in Madagascar there must be moths with proboscises capable of extension to a length of between ten and eleven inches.”  A moth with the necessary tongue length was discovered in 1907. [2] The exotic shapes of many orchids not only have guided passageways through which only the desired pollinator can fit, but even go so far as to imitate the female of an insect to incite the male to a lustful assault. Sex is everywhere.

Color is an equally important attribute for selective pollination. It is the evolutionary result not only of the flower as attractant, but also for the visual color perception of the targeted animal population. Color vision arose about 450 million years ago (mya) with the emergence of the agnathan or jawless fish vertebrates whose only modern survivors are the lampreys and hagfish. Color is a matter of wavelength measured in nanometers (nm) ranging from long wavelength red to short wavelength violet. The vestigial color scheme was tetrachromatic, having four cone types categorized as LWS, longwave sensitive, MWS, middlewave sensitive, SWS2 and SWS1, both shortwave sensitive in addition to rods for black and white. The first three cones correspond to the same general red-green-blue spectra that comprise human color perception with the addition of SWS1 that extends well into the ultraviolet range.  The “four color” physiology has been retained for the vast majority of animals, including most fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and insects, which means, counterintuitively, that they “see” more than we do up to and including ultraviolet light. Almost all land mammals are dichromatic, having lost two of their four cones. The primates evolved from their two-color cone mammalian ancestors about 50 mya, adding a third (red) cone for reasons that are and always will be subject to conjecture. Bees, unlike the majority of tetrachromatic insects, have only three photoreceptors with spectral peaks at 340 nm, 440nm, and 540 nm which means that they can see ultraviolet light quite well but are deficient at the red end of the spectrum. [3]

The wild columbine is scarlet red and has a deep nectary to attract a specific pollinator – the ruby-throated hummingbird. It is certain that the flower and its ecological bird partner coevolved,  the columbine becoming redder and longer and the hummingbird seeking columbines more exclusively as they were much more likely to find nutrition that was, to all intents and purposes, saved for them.  The columbine species that is indigenous to Europe is blue in color, has a shorter stile, and is not as tubular in shape. It is pollinated largely by ultraviolet seeking bees who would miss it if it were red; there are no hummingbirds in Europe.  In the western half of North America, there area about twenty  species of columbine that range from white/yellow to blue with broad, open petals that extend horizontally as a landing pad for flies and bees that alight to crawl down to the nectar. The blue Rocky Mountain Columbine (A. caerulea) was selected as Colorado’s state flower in 1891 based on a vote by school children, its notoriety transfixed by the 1999 columbine massacre, an inaugural to an era of gun violence in schools that has yet to abate. [4] 

There are consequences to hiding nectar at the end of a long and delicate tube for the exclusive use of a chosen species. The struggle for survival is inexorable with hunger as its gnawing impetus. It is not uncommon to find a columbine with bore holes at the top of the dove tails where an enterprising insect has made its way to the ambrosia within. There are ways to stop marauders, and the chemical factory of plant physiology solves these types of problems by evolving countermeasures in the form of repellents that may also be toxic. [5] The compounds that emerged from defensive measures of flora against fauna are nature’s pharmacopeia, coopted by humans over time.  Herbal medicines were the province of medieval apothecaries, dispensing curative roots and fruits based on the collective wisdom of millennial trial and error. The European columbine was apparently not one of them, however, as John Gerard, one of the most notable of the early herbalists, does not prescribe them. Rather, he extolls their uniqueness as “five little hollow horns … of the shape of little birds” and notes that “they are set and  sown in gardens for the beauty and variable color of the flowers.” [6] The wild columbine of North America was another flower altogether.

 A. canadensis was widely used as an herbal remedy by Native Americans who were equally adept in the use of plants for medicinal purpose as their counterparts in Europe. The difference between the two columbines may stem from the need for chemical protection in the parlous American wilderness or perhaps from the welcoming of insect pollinators by A. vulgaris that its American cousin restricts in favoring the hummingbird. Whatever the reason, wild columbine has a rich history of practical applications that differ according to tribal custom, as there was limited cultural interchange. Among the more interesting formulations were a wash made from columbine leaves to treat poison ivy itch by Iroquois (a confederation of six tribes), an infusion for “heart troubles” by Cherokee, and as perfume for smoking tobacco by Meskwaki. Young bachelors of the Omaha tribe chewed columbine seeds into a paste to spread on their blankets and bodies as perfume for prospective mates. [7] It would follow that the suggestive red flowers would be used as an adornment to further the intent of the tryst although there is no record of this (there being no medicinal purpose). There is no evidence that any of these uses resulted in actual medical benefit other than what might have been conveyed by the placebo effect. A popular field guide to medicinal plants ascribes vague astringent, diuretic, and anodyne uses for the wild columbine with the provocative warning that it is “potentially poisonous.” [8] Since all medicine is governed by dose, this could be said for nearly anything if used to excess.

European naturalists followed in the footsteps of early explorers and colonists to study and eventually classify and catalogue the cornucopia of the New World. The variety of new plants and animals each carefully described in Latin overwhelmed established European biology, such as it was. To restore order out of the ensuing chaos, Carolinus Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist and physician, devised a taxonomic system based on genus and species published as Systema Naturae in 1735 that is still in use today. The red columbine from the Americas was one of the earliest plants to be identified and exported, probably due in part to its physical resemblance to the European flower of the same name and only accentuated by its flame red florescence.  The Canadian species name provides its provenance … it was first sent by French explorers to the noted Parisian botanist Jacques-Phillipe Cornut who wrote a treatise on Canadian plants in 1635  without ever travelling there to see them for himself. Cornut sent a specimen to John Tradescant in Lambeth, London who renamed it Virginia columbine in 1656. [9] The botanical dispute was a microcosm of the global struggle between France and England that was culminated in the French and Indian or Seven Years’ War one hundred years later. Tradescant and his son were the first English horticulturalists to collect extensively in the Jamestown colony as members of the Worshipful Company of Grand Gardeners. Captain Bligh of HMS Bounty fame was commander of many of their global collecting expeditions. During one of the three trips that the younger Tradescant made to Virginia between 1637 and 1654, he allegedly fell in love with a Powhatan girl and promised to marry her on his return. The Smith-Pocahontas affair was evidently no mere fluke. However, when he sailed back to England, he was introduced to the wife that his father had chosen.  Although reportedly devastated, he catalogued the contents  of what became known as the Lambeth Ark in 1657. It became the British Museum of Garden History in 1981. [10]

The columbine has not escaped the notice of poets, its beauty the inspiration for lofty verse and mellifluous metaphor. John Burroughs, the notable literary naturalist of the nineteenth century was especially fond of it. In his poem Columbine, he extolled its many virtues:

            I strolled along the beaten way, Where hoary cliffs uprear their heads, And all the firstlings of the May Were peeping from their leafy beds,

            When, dancing in its rocky frame, I saw th’ columbine’s flower of flame.   Above a            lichened niche it clung, Or did it leap from out a seam?–

            Some hidden fire had found a tongue And burst to light with vivid gleam.   It thrilled the   eye, it cheered the place, And gave the ledge a living grace.  

There is indeed something almost surreal about an encounter with the crimson columbine along a rocky trail where few things grow and the palette of green, gray, and brown prevails. It is nature’s way of reminding awkward bipeds stumbling along uneven trails that we are also its product ―  there is room for both beauty and the beasts.



2. Needham, W. The Compleat Ambler, Outskirts Press, pp 80-81.


4. Sanders, J. Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles, Ragged Mountain Press, Camden, Maine, 1995. pp 23-25.

5. Adkins, L. Wildflowers of the Appalachian Trail, Menasha Ridge Press, Birmingham, Alabama, 1999, pp 138-139

6. Gerard, J. Gerard’s Herball – Or, Generall Historie of Plantes, John Norton, London, 1597 pp 69-70.

7. Ethnobotanical data base    

8. Duke, J. and Foster, S. Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2000, p 153.

9. Drake, J. “Growing from Seed” The Seed Raising Journal from Thompson & Morgan, Winter 1987-88 Vol. 2 Number 1.     



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s