Stems: branching from a simple, fleshy, fusiform root. Leaves: lower ones triternate on long petioles, upper ones sessile or reduced to simple bracts; leaflets broadly cuneate, three-cleft. Flowers: red, pendulous in anthesis; sepals spreading or reflexed, abruptly narrowed to a short claw; spurs same length as sepals.
A large gaudy flower of which it has been said: " The graceful columbine, all blushing red, Bends to the earth her crown Of honey-laden bells."
The Western Columbine does not seek the light dry soil amongst the rocks, as do its sisters, the Yellow and the Blue Columbines, but prefers a moist habitat, where its brilliant pendulous blossoms make the valleys gay.
It has bright red and gold petals, growing alternately with its five red sepals. These petals, shaped like inverted cornucopias, are usually edged as well as lined with yellow, their upper ends being narrowed to terminal tubular spurs. Linnaeus gave this plant its generic name, derived from the Latin aquila, owing to the fancied resemblance of its spurs to the claws of an eagle; while Columbine is taken from columba, "a dove," and refers to the resemblance of its nectaries to a circle of doves in a ring around a dish, which was a favourite device amongst sculptors and painters in ancient times. The numerous stamens and long slender styles of the pistils protrude like pretty golden tassels from each flower. The foliage of this tall plant, which usually grows from two to three feet high, is very abundant and fern-like; dark green on the top, and pale and whitish underneath. The larger leaves grow on long foot-stalks and are divided into three leaflets, which in their turn are three-to-five lobed and have unequally toothed edges.
There are not very many really red mountain wild flowers, and therefore the traveller takes an especial delight in finding the Western Columbine, since, like Eugene Field, he loves a blossom of "any colour at all so long as it's red." It is a plant extremely attractive to bees, butterflies, and birds, which come to sip its sweets.
Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)