Garden Plants, Wildflowers

Common Columbine

Common Columbine
Recently on the blog, we looked at English bluebells, so this week it seemed only fitting to move on to American bluebells. Also known as Common Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris), this delicately intricate beauty is a wonderful addition to any garden. Although columbine is usually blue, the cultivar growing in our garden is a soft pink and white variety, and they can come in many others. As well as being a stunning plant, its shape teaches an important lesson about evolution, and its symbolism has conflicting naughty and nice origins. 

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Common Columbine gets its name “columbine” from the Latin word “columba”, meaning dove, from the shape of its flowers. Looking at it from the side, you might be reminded of a flock of doves in flight. From the top, however, some have speculated that they look like the claw of an eagle, which is why its Genus name is “Aquilegia”, after “aquila”, meaning eagle. If at first glance you thought it would make a cute bonnet, you would also be correct in naming it so, as this species also goes by the name Granny’s Bonnet. What might not be quite so obvious at first glance is that this species belongs to the Ranunculus family of plants, otherwise known as the Buttercup family. The resemblance is easiest to see in the leaf shape. The three part leaves of Common Columbine are incredibly similar to its cousin, the Buttercup. 

When it comes to the symbolism of Columbine, this varies across cultures. In ancient Greek and Roman cultures, the spurs of the flower were not interpreted as claws but rather phalli, and so the plant became associated with Aphrodite (Venus), Goddess of love, passion and procreation.  In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia [SPOILER ALERT] picks Columbine and gives it Claudius, the uncle of Hamlet, as a symbol of his infidelity. Columbine, in the language of flowers, stands for faithfulness in wedlock. The presentation of Columbine to Claudius is a jab at him taking his brother’s wife as his own [SPOILER END]. Meanwhile in Christianity, the dove imagery that Columbine provokes was associated with the Holy Spirit. Columbine flowers are therefore often seen in pictures of Christ, including his birth and resurrection. The three part leaves are also associated with the Holy Trinity, furthering the symbolism of this plant.

When I began writing this blog post, I was torn as to whether I put it into the wildflower or garden plant category, so I’ve put it in both. This is the case for so many species. While this species is native to Europe and it is a UK wildflower, it is also one that can be enjoyed as a garden plant, as it is in ours. Planting Columbine in your garden can promote bees and butterflies. As mentioned in my Common Dog Violet post, the spurs contain nectaries, which feed pollinators. This is where a valuable, evolutionary lesson can be learnt. A lesson entitled: Adaptive Radiation and Pollinator Syndrome.  

Speaking in a broader sense about the genus Aquilegia, meaning all species of Columbine, the nectar spur length evolves to match the tongue length of the pollinator that drinks their nectar. Adaptive radiation is the process by which an ancestral species rapidly evolves into multiple species to fill new environmental niches. Aquilegia species have all evolved from a single original species, and each species has evolved to suit a specific pollinator. A plant adapting its trait in response to a specific pollinator is called a pollination syndrome. The relationship between pollinator and pollinatee is often quite complex, which allows for efficient pollination. Only individuals that will pollinate the plant are “rewarded” with nectar. However, this is a delicate balance and the failure of one half of the relationship could be disastrous for the other. If the specialised pollinator goes extinct, who will pollinate the plant?

Luckily for our Common Columbine, it’s a popular species among UK pollinators. With an incredibly long history in a variety of cultures, Columbine is a treasured, symbolic flower in the wild and in gardens. It’s unique, delicate form makes it a wonderful addition to any garden and its familiar face is a welcome sight in spring landscapes. 

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