Welsh, Madwysg cyffredin. - Irish, Gillum bawn. - French, Ancolie, Galatine. - German, Akelen. - Italian, Colombina, Perfetto amore.
Ranunculaceae. Aquilegece. Aquilegia.
If the qualities possessed by this plant are as opposite as the significations of its different names, it must be as remarkable as it is beautiful. The Latin name of Aquilegia is derived from the words aqua (water), and legere (to collect), from the water it is supposed to collect. Its modern English name of columbine refers to the figure of a hovering dove with expanded wings, which we obtain by pulling off a single petal with its attached sepals; and the olden name of "culverkeys" * evidently referred to the same things. This peculiarity (alluding to the Holy Spirit which had appeared in the form of a dove) probably influenced the choice of it for decking churches at Whitsuntide, a custom so universal, that the flower is still considered emblematic of that season. The same idea is shewn in the pretty Irish name of Gillum bawn, or white dove; while the ancient name of Flos jovis seems to indicate that its adoption as a symbol by the Christians, as was usual in such cases, was simply a revival of some sacred character attributed to it in heathen times.
Very different is the title of Herba leonis, from its being, as Gerarde says, the "herb wherein the lion delighteth".
* As "pale gander-grass, and azure culverkeys." - Izaak Walton.
Naturalists have generally agreed that the medicinal plant on whose virtues Dioscorides dilates, under the names of Isopyron and Phasiolon, was no other than the columbine, which Adrian Rapard, and others, describe as of great use in medicine, the candied seeds being administered for giddiness; and, when mixed with saffron, supposed to cure the jaundice and to "expel poison," though, as Gerarde adds, they are "most frequently used in gargarisms to clense the teeth and gums." Tragus recommends a drachm of the seed for complaints of the liver, or, boiled in milk, for sore throat. It must, however, be observed, that even ancient writers never seem quite to like prescribing the columbine, and there is little doubt that cases of poisoning occurred from little children putting the leaves into their mouths. This poison may, however, possibly not extend to the seeds; under these circumstances it is difficult to say whether we should attribute to its earthly, or sacred, qualities the Welsh name of Madwysg cyffredin, signifying liquid of universal benefit.
According to Browne, the columbine is the emblem of hope to the deserted:-
"The columbine, in tawny often taken, Is then ascribed to such as are forsaken!
Flora's choice buttons, of a russet dye (?) Is hope even in the depth of misery".
We have in Britain but one columbine, the Aqui-legia vulgaris, which though rare in some places, is frequent in others, and is well known from its frequent occurrence in gardens. A theory, based on a tradition, exists, that it is not a native plant, but a Roman introduction, only occurring in a really wild state in localities at some period occupied by these colonists. I am not aware whether observations tending to settle this question have been carried out on any systematic plan, but so far as my own chance observation extends, there appears to be good ground for the supposition. At any rate it is worthy of further inquiry.
Dr. Withering refers to the columbine as affording an interesting illustration of the wonderful gift of insect instinct. It is impossible for the bee to gather the rich stores of honey furnished by this flower by entering the elongated nectaries; but he is not to be daunted, and his keen sense of smell discovering the exact spot in which the treasure is secreted, he pierces through calix and blossom with his pointed proboscis, and so extracts the sweets. The same ingenious contrivance is employed both by bee and wasp for the extraction of honey from the Cuphcea and other plants; and I have frequently, on a bright, warm day, vainly sought in a bed of these plants for a single fully-expanded blossom, the long thin tube of which had not been thus pierced at its base.