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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Plant of the Month (May) : Western columbine – Aquilegia formosa

Western Columbine (Aquilegia Formosa) in Mother Nature's Garden of Health

Four years into a continuing drought in Southern California.   We’ve supplemented the meager spring rainfall, hoping our plants make it through the summer.  But even in early May, many of the greenest plants are those growing in shade.  Among the prettiest shade plants in Mother Nature’s Garden of Health is the Western columbine, Aquilegia formosa.

Western columbine is a member of the Ranunculaceae (Buttercup or Crowfoot family), which has a worldwide distribution of around 1800 species.  Among the better-known members are Ranunculus (genus Ranunculus), Anemone (genus Anemone), Larkspur (genus Delphinium), Meadow rue (genus Thalictrum) and Clematis (genus Clematis).  Many species are planted in gardens and some are used in traditional medicine.  Some Ranunculaceae produce chemicals that are toxic to humans and animals, so it’s best to learn their properties before including them in your garden.

Western columbine can be found from Alaska and Montana to Baja California, Mexico. It grows throughout much of the California Floristic Province (west of the Sierra Nevada Range), with the exception of the Great Central Valley, South Coast, and Channel Islands.   It inhabits moist places in many plant communities including stream banks, seeps, chaparral, oak woodland, mixed evergreen forest and coniferous forest to 8000 foot elevation.    In Southern California, it can be found in the San Gabriel and Liebre Mountains. 

An herbaceous perennial, Aquilegia formosa is 2-3 feet tall and about as wide.    Drought deciduous, it normally dies back in summer; given water, it can remain green until fall.  The foliage is pale blue-green, becoming red-tinged if dry.  The leaves look somewhat like an over-sized Maidenhair fern, with deeply lobed leaflets in groups of three (see below).  The foliage grows mostly as a mound of green at the base.  The plant is similar in appearance to the related Fendler’s meadow rue (Thalictrum fendleri), also growing in our Garden of Health.  Despite the delicate appearance, Aquilegia formosa is a fairly hardy plant. 

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa): foliage

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa): flowering stalks

Western columbine flowers in late spring or summer.  In local lowland gardens, it may bloom as early as April; in areas with cool spring weather, it can flower as late as August.   As seen above, the flowers grow at the ends of erect, many-branched flowering stalks; the overall appearance being open and lacy.  Blooming plants are so unique that they attract rapt attention, at least in our garden.  Columbine flowers seem destined to be admired and photographed!

The flowers of Aquilegia formosa, while smaller than those of Columbine cultivars, possess all the charm of their larger brethren.  The flowers are described as ‘nodding’; they droop and sway on their branches, unlike the more stiffly erect flowers of other species.   Our plant in the Garden of Health has flowers somewhat in-between (see below).   The surprise appearance of an erect, yellow-flowered plant this year (inset, below) strengthens our suspicion that our plant may be a hybrid, rather than the straight species.

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) flower; inset shows yellow-flowered volunteer
 that resembles Aquilegia pubescens

Western columbine is known for its brilliantly colored flowers.  If you like red and yellow, this is surely a plant you’ll like!  Columbines have a highly modified floral structure designed to attract specific pollinators.   The five red, petal-like structures are actually sepals (structures that are often green and inconspicuous in other flowers).   The yellow and red petals form tube-like structures with a broad, yellow opening (the ‘blade’) and a narrow red-orange tube (the ‘spur’).

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa): close-up of flower petals
The spurs in Aquilegia formosa are relatively short and straight compared to other Columbines.  Its flowers are pollinated by long-tongued pollinators, primarily hummingbirds (and occasionally large butterflies).   The nectar is stored in the tips of the spurs, where only a long-tongued pollinator can reach it; and the pendant flowers are easiest for hummingbirds to access. The nectar is extra sweet – another hummingbird adaptation found in this species.  
Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa): close-up of flower (labeled)
As shown above, the sexual organs (stamens and pistils) extend well beyond the blades, ensuring that hummingbirds will brush against them, transporting pollen from flower to flower.  If several species are present, pollen may be transferred between them, creating the hybrids for which Columbines are well-known.   To learn more about the special adaptations of Columbines and their pollinators we recommend:  http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/columbines/birdsandbees.shtml

Western columbine does best with some shade.  In local gardens, we recommend planting it under trees (dappled shade) or in bright shade on the north side of buildings or walls.  While preferring a well-drained soil, it does fine in clay-loams and tolerates a wide pH range (4.0-8.0). Plants do need moist soils, at least until flowering ceases; they can even tolerate winter flooding.  Consider planting Columbines with other water-loving plants so they receive the moisture they need.
Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa): mature seed capsules

While short-lived (3-4 years), Western columbine reseeds well in many gardens.  Each flower can produce many small, dark seeds.  As seen in the photo above, the dry seed capsules open from the top and wind plays a role in distributing seeds.  To prevent re-seeding (and prolong flowering) deadhead flowers regularly.  Watch seed capsules closely if you wish to collect the seed; seeds can ripen quickly in warm weather.  Some gardeners cut off the semi-dry fruiting stalks and place them upside down in a paper bag, allowing the seeds to harvest themselves.

If starting plants from fresh seed, simply scatter seeds in the garden or start them, barely covered, in pots in spring or fall.  Older seeds – or those from colder climates – may germinate better with a short cold-moist pretreatment.  Soak seeds overnight, then place in a damp coffee filter (folded to contain the seeds) and store in an open plastic bag in the refrigerator for 3-5 days before planting.  Seeds will take 3-4 weeks to germinate.

Columbines make a lovely addition to shady areas of the garden. They add woodland charm to shady places under trees and do well with our moisture-requiring native ferns.  Place them where you can enjoy visits from the local hummingbirds – near a bench or porch.  In nature, Western columbine sometimes forms large colonies in open areas.  Mass plantings in the garden can be equally spectacular!  Columbines can even be grown in large containers.  And the flowers make a spectacular addition to floral arrangements.

Native peoples use Aquilegia formosa where ever it grows.  All part of the plant (with the possible exception of the flowers) are at least mildly toxic.  So we don’t recommend eating it, though some native peoples did so in the past.  But the medicinal uses of this plant are legion.  That’s why we grow it in Mother Nature’s Garden of Health. 

Mashed fresh roots are traditionally rubbed on aching, arthritic joints and applied to  bee stings and skin sores to relieve pain; a poultice of fresh leaves is used similarly.  Several tribes report using a mild decoction of the leaves for sore throats, colds and coughs.  A decoction of roots and leaves was taken for dizziness and stomach upset; and a decoction of roots is a traditional Shoshoni medicine for stomachaches, diarrhea and to induce vomiting. 

As with all medicines – particularly those taken internally – caution is advised.  There is often a thin margin of error with medicines: the right dose can heal, but the wrong dose can kill (or make you very sick).  

The seeds of Aquilegia formosa are very fragrant.  They were traditionally ground or chewed to release the scent, then used as a perfume (or to cure head lice!).  You can grind the seeds and include them in potpourri or use sachets of ground seeds perfume clothing.   The flowers are said to be good luck charms in some Native American cultures.  We can’t vouch for their efficacy as charms – but they certainly are special flowers!


For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com



  1. I've used this plant in planter boxes on a wall opposite a client's living room - the plant trails over the edge and adds a nice touch of color.

  2. The sweetness of cumin is utilized to adjust the hotness of different fixings that offer flavor to curries, chutneys and stew. It's taste is sharp, yet sweet. Pounding crisply toasted seeds is a more tasty alternative than acquiring monetarily arranged ground cumin. Member of the buttercup family