One of our favorite perennials to grow in the flowerbed is columbine. Everything from its dark green lobed leaves to its bright ruby and royal blue and purple blooms seems a purposefully whimsical design by nature to get us bright and cheery after cold, gray winter.
Columbine is a highly recognisable flower due to its unique shape. The bloom has five modified petals that stick out behind the flower to form long hollow spurs, and sepals that can be spread out, pushed forward, or stretched back behind the petals. The spurs, too, can stick out straight or curl inward and outward like strings. In a large bed, you can display many interesting shapes together by combining different kinds of columbine, particularly when mixing colors. In fact, not only does columbine feature a great many vibrant jewel tones and soft yellows and pinks, but many varieties feature striking combinations of color between the sepals and petals. Adding further personality to these springtime beauties, the blooms may appear to sit erect on the stem, or hang downward as if nodding or drooping. These little wildflowers, when introduced to your beds, will add a magical fairytale element to your garden.
Columbine crossed over into North America from Asia and Europe via Beringia thousands of years ago. It has managed to thrive because of its strange and unique variety of shapes—this is due to the plant adapting to the needs of pollinators in new regions as it spread. In fact, the columbine flower is the subject of much evolutionary study and speculation. In a relatively short amount of time, from one common ancestor, columbine has burst into a genus featuring over sixty different species featuring great variation, specifically in the lengths and shapes of the spurs. Working from a theory originally postulated by Charles Darwin, researchers have found that as it has traveled through Canada and the States, columbine has adjusted the sizes of its spurs to suit the tongues of its chief pollinators in the area. Columbine can do this so quickly that it is able to adapt in its established area in direct response to shifting pollinator populations. Originally believing the rapidity was due to cell proliferation, researchers at Harvard and UCSB have recently found that cell elongation is responsible for columbine’s ability to adjust the shape of its spurs. This means that once the cells of the spur have developed, rather than producing more cells to change the shape of the spur, the preexisting cells can simply elongate and change shape intermittently.
Aside from its scientific importance, columbine has been a socially and culturally significant plant for a very long time. Columbine has been used medicinally to treat stomach ailments, sore throats, and even kidney problems (however, we wouldn’t recommend it—parts of the plant can be toxic). Columbine has had some unusual associations through the years: cuckoldry, foolishness, lost love, faithlessness, and ingratitude are a few of them. Shakespeare may have employed these connotations when he wrote Hamlet; Ophelia’s gift of flowers, including columbine, to the king is the subject of literary analysis. The name “columbine” is derived from the Latin word for dove, due to the flower’s shape resembling the bird. Because of this, the plant has also carried a Christian association with doves. The flower also has an association specifically to the Virgin Mary of Christian theology, as the petals resemble a woman’s shoes when they drop from the plant. It has been said that where she has walked, columbines have sprung from the ground, earning them the nickname “Mary’s shoes” or “Our Lady’s slippers.” Columbine is also the state flower of Colorado, and it is illegal to remove or disturb the flower on public land.
Columbine can grow to be between one to two feet high with flowers between one to two inches. Plant columbine in an area that gets partial shade, and keep the soil moist, but not soaked. Plants may be purchased and put into the garden in the spring, or seed may be sown directly into the garden from spring to midsummer. Columbine will re-seed itself readily if flowers are left to decay and drop. It is hardy in zones three to nine.