This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flower - Red outside, yellow within, irregular, 1 to 2 in. long, solitary, nodding from a curved footstalk from the upper leaf-axils. Petals 5, funnel-shaped, but quickly narrowing into long, erect, very slender hollow spurs, rounded at the tip and united below by the 5 spreading red sepals, between which the straight spurs ascend; numerous stamens and 5 pistils projecting. Stem: 1 to 2 ft. high, branching, soft-hairy or smooth. Leaves: More or less divided, the lobes with rounded teeth; large lower compound leaves on long petioles. Fruit: An erect pod, each of the 5 divisions tipped with a long, sharp beak.
Preferred Habitat - Rocky places, rich woodland.
Flowering Season - April - July.
Distribution - Nova Scotia to the Northwest Territory; southward to the Gulf States. Rocky Mountains.
Although under cultivation the columbine nearly doubles its size, it never has the elfin charm in a conventional garden that it possesses wild in Nature's. Dancing in red and yellow petticoats, to the rhythm of the breeze, along the ledge of overhanging rocks, it coquettes with some Punchinello as if daring him to reach her at his peril. Who is he? Let us sit a while on the rocky ledge and watch for her lovers.
Presently a big muscular bumblebee booms along. Owing to his great strength, an inverted, pendent blossom, from which he must cling upside down, has no more terrors for him than a trapeze for the trained acrobat. His long tongue - if he is one of the largest of our sixty-two species of Bombus - can suck almost any flower unless it is especially adapted to night-flying sphinx moths, but can he drain this? He is the truest benefactor of the European columbine (A. vulgaris, see p. 15), whose spurs suggested the talons of an eagle (aquila) to imaginative Linnaeus when he gave this group of plants its generic name. Smaller bumblebees, unable through the shortness of their tongues to feast in a legitimate manner, may be detected nipping holes in the tips of all columbines, where the nectar is secreted, just as they do in larkspurs, Dutchman's breeches, squirrel corn, butter and eggs, and other flowers whose deeply hidden nectaries make dining too difficult for the little rogues. Fragile butterflies, absolutely dependent on nectar, hover near our showy wild columbine with its five tempting horns of plenty, but sail away again, knowing as they do that their weak legs are not calculated to stand the strain of an inverted position from a pendent flower, nor are their tongues adapted to slender tubes unless these may be entered from above. The tongues of both butterflies and moths bend readily only when directed beneath their bodies. It will be noticed that our columbine's funnel-shaped tubes contract just below the point where the nectar is secreted - doubtless to protect it from small bees. When we see the honey-bee or the little wild bees - Halictus chiefly - on the flower, we may know they get pollen only.
Finally a ruby-throated humming bird whirs into sight. Poising before a columbine, and moving around it to drain one spur after another until the five are emptied, he flashes like thought to another group of inverted red cornucopias, visits in turn every flower in the colony, then whirs away quite as suddenly as he came. Probably to him, and no longer to the outgrown bumblebee, has the flower adapted itself. The European species wears blue, the bee's favorite color according to Sir John Lubbock; the nectar hidden in its spurs, which are shorter, stouter, and curved, is accessible only to the largest humblebees. There are no humming birds in Europe. (See jewel-weed, p. 314.) Our native columbine, on the contrary, has longer, contracted, straight, erect spurs, most easily drained by the ruby-throat which, like Eugene Field, ever delights in "any color at all so long as it's red."
To help make the columbine conspicuous, even the sepals become red; but the flower is yellow within, it is thought to guide visitors to the nectaries. The stamens protrude like a golden tassel.
Wild Columbine. (Aquilegia Canadensis.)
After the anthers pass the still immature stigmas, the pollen of the outer row ripens, ready for removal, while the inner row of undeveloped stamens still acts as a sheath for the stigmas. Owing to the pendent position of the flower, no pollen could fall on the latter in any case. The columbine is too highly organized to tolerate self-fertilization. When all the stamens have discharged their pollen, the styles then elongate; and the feathery stigmas, opening and curving sidewise, bring themselves at the entrance of each of the five cornucopias, just the position the anthers previously occupied. Probably even the small bees, collecting pollen only, help carry some from flower to flower; but perhaps the largest bumblebees, and certainly the humming bird, must be regarded as the columbine's legitimate benefactors. Caterpillars of one of the dusky wings (Papilio lucilius) feed on the leaves.
Very rarely is the columbine white, and then its name, derived from words meaning two doves, does not seem wholly misapplied.
"O Columbine, open your folded wrapper Where two twin turtle-doves dwell," lisp thousands of children speaking the "Songs of Seven " as a first "piece" at school. How Emerson loved the columbine! Dr. Prior says the flower was given its name because "of the resemblance of the nectaries to the heads of pigeons in a ring around a dish - a favorite device of ancient artists."
This exquisite plant was forwarded from the Virginia colony to England for the gardens of Hampton Court by a young kinsman of Tradescant, gardener and herbalist to Charles I.