Summit Outside: Columbine: Colorado’s state flower |

Summit Outside: Columbine: Colorado’s state flower

Dr. Joanne Stolen
Special to the Daily
Special to the Daily

Columbines are everywhere we look in Summit County. I recently went on the Garden Club Tour and there was not a garden without a variety of columbines of various colors.

Some garden catalogues offer 37 cultivated varieties, and there are actually 80 species of columbines.

Columbines belong to the buttercup family, which also includes a number of other familiar flowers, such as anemones, hellebores and larkspurs. The leaves are similar in this family; narrow at the base, flaring outward towards flat, scalloped edges.

The white and lavender columbine, “Aquilegia caerules,” was adopted as the official state flower of Colorado on April 4, 1899, by an act of the General Assembly. In 1925, the General Assembly made it the duty of all citizens to protect this species and the law prohibits digging or uprooting the flower on public lands and limits the gathering of buds, blossoms and stems to 25 in one day. It is unlawful to pick the columbine on private land without consent of the land owner.

Columbine comes from the Latin “Columba” which means “dove.” The genus name “Aquilegia” is derived from the Latin word for eagle, because the shape of the flower petals are said to resemble an eagle’s claw. “Caerules” means blue.

Columbines are perennial plants that are found in meadows, woodlands, at higher altitudes throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The native columbine propagates by seed and will grow to a height of 15-20 inches in full sun, but prefers growing in partial shade and well drained soil, and is able to tolerate average soils and dry soil conditions. They are especially beautiful growing profusely under aspen forests.

These spectacular flowers are found growing wild in many Summit County environments: from hot, dry, talus slopes to moist, shady forests.

Its color varies through a wonderful range of whites, blues and purples. The plant flowers from June through August.

Columbine plants grow from long carrot-like taproots, which aid in making them drought tolerant. They live for about three years and reseed readily. Columbine flowers transforms into a fruit within five erect follicles and shiny black seeds. The multi-chambered pod and attached stem are dry and crispy. The pod itself splits in places to make openings big enough for the seeds to fall out. The plant holds the pods with the open part facing upwards and a lot of seeds are sown by the gusty winds that form on the leading edge of summer storms. The winds tip the seeds from the pods and the rains water them into the soil.

Columbine species cross pollinate easily, ultimately producing a variety of different hybrids.

Columbines are closely related to plants like baneberries and monkshoods, all of which contain a toxic substance in the seeds and roots. This highly poisonous substance can cause both severe stomach problems and heart palpitations if consumed.

The flowers of various species of columbine were eaten by Native Americans as a condiment with other fresh greens, and are sweet tasting, and safe if consumed in small quantities.

Infusions from different parts of the plant were used for a variety of diseases ranging from heart problems to fever, and to help relieve the pain of poison ivy. Native Americans used very small amounts of the root as an effective treatment for ulcers. Medicinal use of this plant is not advised, however due to its high toxicity, and columbine poisonings may be fatal.

Columbines are used as food by some butterflies and moth caterpillars. These are mainly moths noted for feeding on many poisonous plants without harm.

The columbine flowers are nodding at the tips with spurs that point upwards, and numerous yellow stamens project downward, well past the petals and sepals. The unique columbine flower shape makes the plant well suited for attracting long-tongued nectar feeders, especially hawk moths and hummingbirds, while at the same time preventing small bees from reaching the nectar directly. Because of the hummingbird’s slender bill and long tongue, it is able to reach the columbine flower nectar from the base of the spur, ultimately acting as the columbine flower’s most efficient pollinator.

Columbine are one of the few ornamental plants not often ravaged by deer.

The Columbine flower is probably the most honored state flower in all of the United States. The name “columbine” has been used for a locomotive, ships, a race horse and numerous buildings, and was brought to national attention by the unfortunate incident at the high school by that name.

The ‘columbine’ often represents folly, in mythology and its petals symbolize the seven gifts of the spirit. The wild columbine actually has only five petals, however, early artists, painted seven flowers on one stalk. The flower is referred to in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and in one of Ben Jonson’s poems: “‘Bring cornflag, tulip and Adonis flower, Fair Oxeye, goldylocks and columbine.”

So revel ye in this exquisite flower which blooms in profusion in our summer alpine environment.

Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University. Some of the block prints of the animals she writes about can be seen locally. During the summer she coaches rowing at Frisco Rowing Center.

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