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Wild Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)


In my area, columbines are a late spring/early summer flower. But in the high mountains – especially with the late, cold spring we had – they’re blooming about now.

It’s hard not to love the gracefulness of columbines. They’re elegant en masse, as the picture at the top shows, dangling from arched stems, with their pretty almost clover-like foliage hidden by other groundcovers. And I love their individual shapes, which you can see even in the bud.


Columbines are another instance where I find the wild flower much more graceful than many of the garden types. Though I enjoy the larger, bolder McKana hybrids, and some of the others, I find many of the garden varieties distressing.

The trend to make every columbine double, for instance, like a bad re-enactment of a Victorian bonnet, stuffed with frill upon rolled frill until the shape is just a mass of writhing loops.

Or, even worse, the spurless kind – what, pray tell, is the point of a columbine without the graceful spurs?

That’s certainly what some bees must think, because sometimes they bite through the bulb at the tip of the spurs, to steal the nectar. Otherwise, columbines have to be pollinated by very large bumble bees or hummingbirds – nothing else can reach down there. So it is clear their blooming schedule has evolved to accommodate hummingbird migration. How did that happen? It’s only one of the mysteries of life.

I found this red-and-yellow columbine in a boggy spot, a little pocket with corn lilies, sedges, and other moisture-loving plants. The soil was a moosh of crushed granite and silt, and it had an eastern exposure. As you can see, they were thriving there, so if you want to plant them, you can take tips for the garden.

I’ve also seen these columbines in drier places – the wild western columbine is supposed to be a little more drought-tolerant than its twinlike eastern cousin,  Aquilegia canadensis. But I’ve noticed that, when Aquilegia formosa grows in drier areas, it takes advantage of seasonal wetness, then dies back until another year.

We have other wild columbines in California, such as the very-long-spurred, fragrant Aquilegia chrysantha, long on my List of Desired Plants. If you’re wondering why it’s not already in my garden, well, that’s because my List of Desired Plants has hundreds of names on it, and would require winning the lottery to fulfill.

The Latin name “aquilegia” means “eagle”, referring to the shape of the flower (you can especially see it in the forming bud). The namers of this flower appear to agree with me that their spurs are their most distinctive and telling point. (So to speak.) And the species name, I think, makes an even better case for preserving the spurs: “formosa” means “beautiful”.

If you have a boggy spot (or even a container with no holes), you might want to invite some beautiful eagles  into your garden. Or just admire them in their native habitat.

{ 5 comments… add one }

  • lostlandscape (James) August 14, 2010, 12:50 pm

    When my mother died a little over a decade ago some thoughtful friends gave me a gift certificate to my favorite nursery. I wanted to get some columbines for the garden since they were her favorite flowers. All I found at the nursery that season were the giant double hybrids, pretty enough but galumphing and altogether lacking the grace and elegance of “real” columbines. I bought a sixpack, grudgingly, but was never happy with the purchase for the several years they came back. A. formosana will be getting a spot in my garden this fall to make up for my earlier mistake.

  • Pomona Belvedere August 14, 2010, 1:14 pm

    James, that was such a thoughtful gift your friends gave you. I’m sorry you were thwarted in your memorial – I love plants as a way to keep the memory of someone I love alive. I’m glad if I’ve provided access to something you and your mother would like.

  • Cyd August 16, 2010, 6:33 am

    I have never seen the wild columbine. They are very graceful compared to the garden kinds. I like that they are one of the only things blooming after the tulips. I took seeds from a neighbor and now I have all different varieties self sowing in the garden. I love that James plants memorial flowers, I do the same in memory of my grandmothers.

  • Pomona Belvedere August 16, 2010, 11:40 am

    It’s true, columbine is a perfect after-tulip fix! Congratulations on your self-sown versions. I’d be interested to know what plants you have in memory of your grandmothers. It’s an ancient tradition, plants in memory of people, and a good one.

  • Genevieve Schmidt September 21, 2010, 6:37 am

    Pomona, I just loved your writeup on this CA native. I’ve been trying hard to incorporate more natives into my garden, and this is a particularly gorgeous one. I loved your comment about what is a columbine without the spurs!! Indeed.

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