Wildflowers of the Adirondacks:
Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a native Adirondack wildflower which produces showy red and yellow flowers in late spring and summer in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Its compound leaves are divided into threes, with three irregular lobes.
Wild Columbine is a member of the Ranunculaceae (Buttercup or Crowfoot) family – a very large family that includes other Adirondack wildflowers such as Goldthread, White Baneberry, Red Baneberry, and Tall Meadow Rue. Wild Columbine is one of 21 species in the Aquilegia genus Only one other (Aquilegia vulgaris) occurs in New York State; this plant is not native, having been introduced from Europe. The other Aquilegia species are found out west or in the southwest, most in very small areas.
- The genus name (Aquilegia) is derived from the Latin word "aquila," which means eagle; some believe that the petals resemble an eagle's talons. An alternate theory about the origin of the name suggests that it is from the Latin aquarius, meaning “water carrier” – a reference to the nectar that collects in the spurs. The species name (canadensis) refers to its presence in Canada.
- The origin of the common name (Columbine) is unclear. One source suggests that it derives from the Latin term for dove (columba); the shape of the petals supposedly represents the figure of a dove.
Wild Columbine has a long list of common names. Many sources refer to it as Red Columbine. Other names include American Columbine, Canadian Columbine, Cluckies, Colorado Columbine, Columbine, Common Columbine, Dancing Fairies, Eastern Red Columbine, Granny’s Bonnets, Honeysuckle, Jack-in-trousers, Meeting Houses, Meetinghouses, Meeting-houses, Northern Bush-honeysuckle, Red-bell, Red-bells, Rock Lily, Rock-bells, Rock-lily, Wild Red Columbine, and Wild-honeysuckle.
Identification of Wild Columbine
Wild Columbine is a perennial plant.
- It grows one to three feet tall and 12 to 18 inches wide.
- Wild Columbine has a short, erect underground stem (called a caudexCaudex: The thickened, usually underground base of the stem of many perennial herbaceous plants, from which new leaves and flowering stems arise.) and fibrous, short-lived roots.
- The aboveground portions of the plant die back to the caudex in mid- to late autumn.
The plant is erect; the upper part of the plant is branched, but not densely so. The stems are green to reddish green and may be slightly hairy on the upper part of the plant (near the flower).
Wild Columbine leaves are compoundCompound Leaf: A leaf that is divided to the midrib, with distinct, expanded portions called leaflets., which means that its leaves form distinct leaflets on a common leaf stalk. The leaves are typically divided into threes, each of which have three irregular, rounded lobes. The basal leaves (the leaves that emerge from the base of the plant) are larger than the stem leaves. The basal leaves have long stalks. The leaves on the upper stem are alternateAlternate: An arrangement of leaves (or buds) on a stem (or twig) in which the leaves emerge from the stem one at a time. This often makes the leaves appear to alternate on the stem. (meaning that they emerge from the stem one per node) and smaller with short or no stalks.
Wild Columbine produces tubular flowers which hang downwards, dangling from long stems.
- Each of the yellow-tipped petals extends backwards into long red spurs. Each spur has a slightly bulbous tip called a nectary where (as the name implies) nectar is stored.
- The flower has five flaring, petal-like sepalsSepal: One of the usually separate, green parts that surround and protect the flower bud and extend from the base of a flower after it has opened.; the sepals are reddish in color with yellow, rounded tips.
- Hanging down from the bottom of the bell is a bundle of many long stamensStamen: The male part of the flower, made up of the filament and anther. with bright yellow anthersAnther: the part of a stamen that contains the pollen..
- The flowers are about 1½" long from the tip of the spur to the tip of the stamens.
Wild Columbines are listed in most sources as late spring and early summer bloomers. Just south of the Adirondack Park Blue Line, this wildflower usually starts blooming in very early May. In the Adirondack Mountains, you can find Wild Columbine in bloom in mid- to late May in the foothills of the Adirondacks and the southern part of the Adirondack Park. In the northeastern areas, bloom times may be a few weeks later, depending on the weather and the site.
The fruit of Wild Columbine consists of erect green capsules, each ½ to 1 inch long, which mature to brown. Each capsule splits open to release many shiny, black seeds. Seed release usually occurs in early- to mid-autumn.
Wild Columbine leaves are somewhat similar to those of Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum pubescens) and Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), both of which are also found in the Adirondack Mountains.
- The starry, white flowers of Tall Meadow Rue are very different from Wild Columbine's showy red and yellow blooms. In addition, the leaflets of Tall Meadow Rue, although they have similar rounded lobes, are smaller than those of Wild Columbine.
- Wild Columbine's compound leaves are also somewhat similar to those of Blue Cohosh (another plant found in the Adirondacks), but the leaflets of the latter plant have more pointed lobes and a bluish cast.
Wild Columbine can be distinguished from European Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) by the color and structure of the flowers.
- European Columbine has blue, violet, pink or white flowers.
- Another distinguishing characteristic is the length of the spurs; garden columbines which are hybrids from the European species tend to have very short hooked spurs, in contrast to the long straight spurs of Wild Columbine.
Uses of Wild Columbine
Wild Columbine has been used in a variety of folk remedies. North American Indians reportedly crushed the seeds to use as a headache remedy. They are also said to have prepared infusions from various parts of the plant as a treatment for heart trouble, poison ivy, kidney problems, headaches, bladder problems, and fever. Several sources, however, caution against the use of this plant as a home remedy, since the plant belongs to a family that includes a number of toxic species.
Other uses of Wild Columbine include boiling the plant as a hair wash. In addition, the crushed seed is said to be pleasantly aromatic and has been used as a perfume. Native Americans reportedly rubbed the crushed seeds on the hands of men as a love charm.
Wildlife Value of Wild Columbine
Because the foliage of Wild Columbine is toxic, it is generally unpalatable to mammals. However, the flowers of this wildflower provide nectar that attracts hummingbirds and bumblebees, while the foliage provides food for a variety of insects.
The primary bird consumer of Wild Columbine's nectar is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. These tiny birds seem to prefer red tubular flowers, and Wild Columbine's bloom time coincides with the arrival of hummingbirds from their wintering grounds to the south. Moreover, the nectar from Wild Columbine is dilute, containing about 20-23% sugar, which is typical of hummingbird flowers.
Sources conflict, however, on the importance of Wild Columbine to the Ruby-throated's diet and the extent to which the Wild Columbine depends on the hummingbird for pollination. Although many sources list Wild Columbine as one of the major food items for the Ruby-throated, one recent study suggests that Wild Columbine is only infrequently visited by hummingbirds.
Wild Columbine also provides food for a variety of insects.
- The plant's flowers attract long-tongued insects, including bumblebees, who visit the flowers for nectar and may also collect pollen for their larvae. Short-tongued bumblebee species, lacking the equipment needed to reach the nectar through the long tubular petals, may nip holes in the nectaries from the outside.
- Wild Columbine is the primary host plant for the Columbine Duskywing butterfly.
- The larvae of several insects feed on Wild Columbine, including the Columbine Sawfly, the Columbine Leafminer, and several borer moth species.
Distribution of Wild Columbine
Wild Columbine is found in the eastern two-thirds of the US and the southern provinces of eastern Canada, from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, south to northern Florida, western Oklahoma, and eastern Texas. This plant is listed as Endangered in Florida.
Wild Columbine occurs in most counties in New York State. It has been documented in all Blue Line counties except Franklin, Hamilton, and Herkimer counties.
Habitat of Wild Columbine
Wild Columbine can grow in a variety of soil and light conditions. It apparently prefers light shade to partial sun, but can survive in full sun to shade. It grows in a variety of soils. It reportedly does best in loamy soil, but will also grow in soil that is rocky or slightly sandy. It can survive in moist to dry conditions.
This relative versatility means that Wild Columbine can be found in a variety of habitats, including shaded or open woods, rocky woodlands, wet cliffs, rocky slopes, and the edges of paths and dirt roads. In the Adirondack Mountains, Wild Columbine is found in a variety of ecological communities, including:
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