Spring is the time of year ripe for reuniting with friends. After a long winter, neighbors begin to gather again, animals emerge from hibernation, and if you look closely among the many shades of green, you’ll see signs that other friends have returned too – the wildflowers. Earlier this week, on a slow morning walk, my eye honed in on the trail of clues that led me to a dear friend, Red Columbine.
*Red Columbine, Aquilegia formosa
First, I caught a glimpse of the short lacy bush and stopped to confirm the leaves: dark green with a light green underside and deeply cut edges. Then, further down the trail, my eye caught a glimpse of a blushing coral bud. I was excited to return in a few days to see if it was blooming, but as I continued down the path, I suddenly spotted a nodding, lantern-like blossom of magnificent red and yellow. The first Red Columbine of the season!
The meaning of its Latin name, Aquilegia formosa, tells a story of its splendor. Aquila means eagle, a perfect description when you look closely at its talon-like nectaries. And formosa means handsome, beautiful, or well-formed; also accurate when closely observing its intricate construction. Each blossom is a drooping red and yellow bell about 1-2” in size. The nodding flowers look like hollow honeycombs with five long red spurs behind them. To obtain the best view, get down on the ground and look up at the flower from underneath. Moths, hummingbirds, and butterflies are expert pollinators for this flower because they have long mouthparts equipped to suck nectar from deep inside the tube-shaped blossoms.
Red Columbine flowers are said to be edible and sweet, but the seeds are deadly. In fact, most parts of this plant contain cyanogenic glycosides, which are highly poisonous, so follow the example made by wise rabbits and deer and steer clear from nibbling. However, aside from being inedible, the flowers do have several other traditional uses. For example, plateau Native Americans used them for making perfumes. Additionally, several tribes used the seeds and leaves medicinally to treat stomach aches, coughs, colds, and sore throats.
Red is an uncommon color in nature, so be sure to take in its grandeur. Sit and enjoy a moment of silence in the woods; watch the blossoms float and bob in the gentle breeze. If you wait long enough, you may even witness a butterfly stealing sweet nectar without even touching the flower. Red Columbines typically bloom now through July, so grab your children or grandchildren and enjoy them while they are visiting.