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My favorite wildflower

May 15, 2016
Kevin Williams - Grundy County Conservation Director , Reinbeck Courier

Someone asked me the other day if I had a favorite spring wildflower. I have many favorite things. Trees, mammals, fish, rocks, etc. Sometimes my favorite changes as in the case of pursuit of a game species. What at one time was pheasant has changed to deer. But my favorite wildflower has remained the same, however Columbine (Aquilegia columba).

I grew up calling it wild bleeding heart. I have since decided that it is not a common nickname for it. In fact, I don't think that I have found anyone else who learned it as that. The Dutchman's Breeches that we find in the spring woodlands is a close relative to our garden variety of bleeding heart but not the columbine. Oh well, it will always be wild bleeding heart to me.

This flower likes to grow along woodland edges May through June. The sepals and the majority of the flower are red except for yellow tips or blades which when viewed from underneath appear to look like spokes on a wagon wheel or perhaps chambers on a revolver. The flowers on each plant are all in various stages so cross pollination is possible by pollinators. Because of the flower's long spurs with the pouches or "nectaries" at the end, the nectar consumption is generally done by long tongued drinkers of nectar, in particular hummingbirds and longer tongued moths. But there are a few insects that choose the easy way of poking a hole into the sacs and drinking it from there. Once the flowers have been fertilized they may turn upwards before falling off leaving five tubular seed pods which scatter their seeds in the wind. The ripe seeds are small and dark colored and remind me a bit of black pepper. Wild columbine stands between 1' and 3' tall.

Article Photos

Photo by Kevin Williams

Although fragile looking, the plant and its flowers are really quite tough. Many times I have observed a strong wind tossing the flowers back and forth without ill effects. The flowers shaking in the wind like that remind me of ringing bells or Christmas tree ornaments. Columbine is a perennial.

The name "Aquilegia" means eagle and refers to the five nectaries which curve inward resembling the talons of an eagle. The common name "columbine" stems from the Latin "columba," which means dove and refers to the five red sepals which look like the upturned tails of drinking doves. It is interesting to note that the United States considered the columbine for the national flower both because of its beauty and its reference to the eagle.

And of course there is some interesting Native American lore that accompanies the plant. In some tribes a man would grind up the seeds into a powder and coat his hands before holding the hand of his desired companion, and then they would wash their hands together. This "love potion" ensured the couple a long, happy life together. In others, I understand that a young brave would sneak the seeds into the moccasin of his intended to ensure that she would fall for him.

I have gathered the dark, black peppery-looking seeds not in an attempt to win the heart of a fair maiden but to add to the beauty of our yard. Last summer I gathered and spread these seeds up along the edge of our property where we have a number of trees but scattered enough to provide ample sunlight to the spots. I am happy to report that this spring I have a bountiful amount of columbine plants in those areas and I am looking forward to my own little "wild bleeding heart" garden very soon.



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