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Columbine: A Flower of Meanings

Columbine (Aquilegia Formosa): A Flower of Meanings

Plant lore associates the columbine with at least as many meanings as the petals on its flower. A common one is foolishness. In Hamlet, Ophelia says, “There’s fennel for you and columbines,” the latter referring to folly. To support this, the columbine flower is said to resemble the hat of a court jester. Columbine also serves as a symbol of fortitude, and it’s sometimes given as a gift to provide courage and endurance in one’s endeavors. Whatever meaning you ascribe to this flower, columbine can make a beautiful addition to your garden.

Characteristics, Habitat, and Range

Aquilegia is a genus of 60-70 species of perennial plants that are found in meadows, woodlands, and at higher altitudes throughout the Northern Hemisphere, known for the spurred petals of their flowers. The genus name Aquilegia comes from the Latin aquila, which means eagle and refers to the spurred petals that many believe resemble an eagle’s talons. The species found in western North America, from Alaska to Baja California and here in the San Francisco Bay Area, is Aquilegia formosa; more commonly called Crimson Columbine, or Western Columbine. The species name formosa, is Latin for beautiful. ​​

Columbine is a perennial herb that grows 2-3 feet tall. It usually blooms in the spring, although flowers can be seen from April to August. It is a part of the Ranunculaceae (Buttercup) family. Aquilegia formosa has delicate, blue-green, lobed foliage and pendent, yellow and red spurred flowers. Its flowers hang at ends of branches above this bushy plant with several stems and many divided leaves. The petals bear spurs that attract the plant's pollinators, the Sphinx moth. In addition, Crimson Columbine is a favorite food source for hummingbirds due to its bright orange and yellow color and concentrated nectar, qualities that hummers like.

Ethnobotanical Information

Native Californians are known to have gathered the young leaves of crimson columbines before flowering and ate them after boiling. Other groups used the roots, seeds, and leaves for a variety of medicinal purposes, including grinding the toxic seeds into a paste to treat head lice. Note: Nearly all members of this plant family are POISONOUS if eaten, and thus dangerous to humans, pets, and livestock.

​​Care and Propagation

Aquilegia formosa can be easily propagated from seed. No treatment is necessary. Seedlings around parent plants appear in summer and can be moved the following spring. They are perfect for a bird garden and are deer resistant. Plants will grow in sun to part shade in moist rocky soil but will tolerate dry, nutrient poor soil.

Come See Us at the Sutro Native Plant Nursery

We have many Western Columbines currently available at our Nursery. The Nursery is open on Wednesdays during program hours 9:30-12:30, or by appointment. Come to visit, volunteer, or purchase plants. See our website for more information on the nursery and upcoming plant sales.


1.; The Columbine Flower: Its meanings and symbolism

2. ; Aquilegia

3.; Aquilegia formosa

4.; Western Columbine. California Native Plant Society.

5. Anderson, M. Kat. (2005); Tending the Wild. Native American Knowledge and Management of California’s Natural Resources. University of California Press, Pg. 268.

6.; Hummingbird Flowers – the Best 18 Plant Families for Natural Nectar.

7.; Native American Ethnobotany Database; Aquilegia Formosa.

8.; Aquilegia Formosa (Crimson Columbine, Western Columbine)

9.; Aquilegia Formosa; Propagation; Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Database.

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