Wild Ones   Native Plants: Beyond the Birdfeeder. Gardening for birds and other wildlife. Wild Columbine  
Wild Columbine by Mariette Nowak


The beautiful red Canada columbine (Aqiulegia canadensis) is the only native columbine found throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada.

North America is blessed with a great variety of native columbine species, especially in the West and Southeast. This is the result of co-evolution with their pollinators (see below), as well as hybridization, which occurs readily in columbines.

Hybrids result when pollinating birds or insects nectar at several species in turn, thus combining the genes of these species. If these hybrids then become isolated in a specific location, they often develop unique characteristics, resulting in a new local species. Today, many columbine names reflect these localities, such as Rocky Mountain blue columbine, oil shale columbine, desert columbine, Chiracahua columbine, Utah columbine, and Laramie columbine.

Coevolution with birds and insects

The evolution of the various species of columbine in response to potential pollinators is complex and fascinating. Recent studies show that the genus Aquilegia originated in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, probably crossing the Bering Strait land bridge during the last Ice Age. DNA analysis indicates that it is likely the "founder flower" for all the columbine species found today on our continent. Many new species of columbine evolved in their new habitat, in a classic case of adaptive radiation, much like Darwin's finches did in the Galapagos.

Those colored blue like the Old World species are pollinated by bees, just as are the species in Europe and Asia. The blue columbines are only found in northern latitudes, or high altitudes, where other pollinators are not found.

Other species of columbine evolved in special ways in response to new pollinators available at lower elevations and latitudes in North America. Some columbine species grew longer spurs, increased their nectar, and became lighter in color to attract long-tongued hawk moths, which prefer warmer locations than do bees. These changes ensured a better chance of pollination for the flowers. In the Southwest, red-colored columbines evolved to attract the abundant hummingbirds found there. These red columbines produced even more nectar to suit the high-energy needs of hummingbirds.

Gradually the red columbines further evolved to produce different spurs and floral shapes to adapt to the needs of particular species of hummingbirds. Bumblebees also began pollinating these red columbines, which enabled the red species to move north of the range of the hummingbirds that pollinated them.

Value for birds and insects

The primary value of the wild columbine for hummingbirds is the nectar found in the flower's spurs. Red-colored columbines have especially rich nectar – twice the sugar content of the other columbines native to North America, along with important amino acids. Ornithologists have found that the ruby-throated hummingbird tends to follow the blossoming of the Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) on its journey north in spring, since the flowers are the first to provide nectar for the birds. Later in the season, columbine seeds provide food for finches and buntings.

Bees, butterflies, and hawk moths also feed on columbine nectar. In addition, some species of caterpillars feed on the foliage. Columbine leaves are the sole food for the caterpillars of a skipper, the columbine duskywing (Erynnis lucilius). While these caterpillars may defoliate the plant, they never feed on the flowers, and the plants survive into the next season.

The columbine leaf miner (Phytomyza sp.) also feeds only on columbines. Its tiny trails, created as the insect chews in the interior of the leaves, are frequently seen on columbine foliage.

Landscape notes

With their beautiful blossoms and attractive foliage, columbines are a wonderful addition to wildflower – and rock gardens, woodlands, and borders. Most are short-lived, but readily self-sow and persist in the right conditions. Normally, they grow in places with moist soils in spring, followed by dry summers. Over-watering in summer can cause crown rot.

Since they die back after flowering with only a few basal leaves persisting, it is best to plant with other wildflowers or native grasses in the garden.

Among the many columbine species, a few stand out as excellent choices for gardeners.

The lovely red Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is the only native species found throughout the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada. It is adaptable to a number of habitats including woodlands, savannas, and fens – usually preferring a somewhat shady location. This columbine is endangered in Florida, but can be grown as far south as Orlando.

The Colorado blue columbine (Aquilegia caerulea) is found throughout the Rockies, from the foothills to alpine meadows, and is the state flower of Colorado. It has very showy bi-colored blossoms (typically blue and white), and has been called the "queen of columbines." Not surprisingly, it is one of the most popular western species, and is commonly cultivated.

The red or Sitka columbine (Aquilegia formosa), native to northwestern North America from Wyoming and Alberta to British Columbia, and along the Pacific coast from Alaska to California, is another adaptable species for native-plant gardens.

There are also many beautiful yellow, white, and pink columbines in the western United States, which are sometimes grown in wildflower gardens.

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Updated: Sep 24, 2010.