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My Lovely Columbine

"Columbine" comes from the Latin word for dove.

Whether particularly apt or not, I tend to think first of Colorado when I think of columbine.

No, not the high tragedy in Littleton, but the lovely wildflower. It’s been a long time — a very long time indeed, for I was in college then and not necessarily out of my teens — but I recall it clearly on the mountain hikes we took. Sleeping in a bag under the stars — I never did conquer the ability to sleep without twisting the bag and me into an impossible vice — breaking the ice to brush our teeth, days of “yore” indeed. The Bachelor of Mountaineering degree I earned from the University of Colorado hangs proudly in my home though I confess my knowledge of knot-tying dissipated many decades ago. As did the biology I studied that same summer.)

There were flowers up there, at least until someplace above the treeline, and we inevitably oohed and aahed for their colors and beauty. The columbine is a hard one to miss with its dangling petals and spreading skirt.

It did come as a surprise then to find the same pretty plant in the woods behind my home. It’s easy to understand why I found this plant so enticing, with its three well-divided leaves, five sepals, five petals and five pistils. What caught my eye then was the fruit. It’s a jam-packed follicle found at the end of the pistils. My plant is only found in the east though other types are native to the Western United States. A blue columbine is the state flower of Colorado.

Oh, yes, I know. I’m one of the leading proselyters in believing that the plans Mother Nature has should not be interfered with.

Only I made an exception. I dug up and brought home just two of the columbine plants I had found back there and replanted them in a garden just steps from my door. They haven’t done any nasty thing in the years since, like threatening to crowd out any of the other plants there. There must be three or four — if I’m lucky — which I honestly take as a sign of approval. They have certainly seemed happy here. I presume they also appreciate the sunshine they could hardly have found back there in the woods.

Checking Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (my favorite), I immediately see they show two types of columbine. The Wild Columbine comes in scarlet only and has a yellow center and long protruding stamens. Mine turns out to be the Garden, or European, Columbine. Both, I should note, are described as showy and nodding with a long narrow spur coming out of the back of each of the five regular petals. The garden variety comes in blue, purple or white (though they have now added more shades) and can be found in fields or along roads, more commonly in the northeastern states. (The ones I moved were purple with a lot of red but they turned white the following year.) I was surprised to read they belong to the Buttercup family.

Peterson has them occurring on slopes or in rocky woods (so I’m not far off at all!) in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and on south. The Audubon Field Guide spends 90 percent of its time on the Wild Columbine and tells us only that A. vulgaris was introduced from Europe and has become established in much of the range. Peterson’s Edible Wild Plants does not mention this at all.

Mark Baldwin was probably wise to steer away from this beauty when he led us on walks to discover many local edible wild plants. I have since, however, read that the flowers of the columbine were eaten as a condiment with other greens by Native Americans — BUT only in moderation. They are reportedly very sweet — and it’s OK to eat them (maybe) in small quantities. That said the roots and seeds are highly toxic. (Don’t you get curious wondering how these things were first discovered?) And I repeat: “columbine poisonings may be fatal.” Obviously with far different constitutions, the flowers are enjoyed by some butterflies and moth caterpillars and one species of bumblebee.

Its genus name “Aquilegia” comes from the Latin “aquila” for eagle because some thought the shape of the flower petals resembled an eagle’s claw. “Columbine” comes from the Latin word for dove. Some imaginative soul saw the inverted flowers as resembling five doves in a cluster. If you say so.

Growing to a height of 15 to 20 inches, the species will self-sow.

OK, guys. I’m waiting.

Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. “Her Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” following in 2014. Both novels are now available at Lakewood’s Off the Beaten Path bookstore. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.

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