14 June 2013

Although the rose was designated the official flower of the United States of America in 1986, the columbine was long a front runner for that title. The common species of columbine (A. vulgaris) is a European native, mentioned by everyone from poets such as Shakespeare and Chapman to the great herbalist Nicholas Culpeper. However columbine species such as A. Skinneri and A. Formosa, as well as A. coerulea and the grand A. chrysantha from the Rocky Mountains are native to America and flourish in almost all of the 48 states. The English name of the genus is derived from the Latin columba, a pigeon, and supposedly reflects the way the flower resembles the heads of pigeons in a ring around a dish. The generic name Aquilegia comes from aquila, Latin for an eagle, from the fancied resemblance of the blossom to an eagle's claw. This association with the American eagle was naturally reinforced by the similarity between the English name of the plant and that of Christopher Columbus. When the columbine's adaptability in almost any territory in the New World was thrown into the mix, it was arguably inevitable that the plant qualified as America's national flower.

According to T.F. Thistleton-Dyer, European botanists also referred to the plant as Herba leonis, reflecting the belief that it was the favorite herb of the lion. In other traditions, however, the columbine belongs to Venus, the goddess of love, largely because the pigeon or dove was her symbol long before it became a symbol of the Holy Spirit in medieval Europe. Native American lore concurs, claiming that pulverized columbine seeds combined with other "potion" ingredients could be used as a love charm. Sadly, however, columbine is usually emblematic of deserted, fallen, or unrequited love, and giving a woman a bouquet of columbine was considered a sign that her husband or lover was unfaithful.

The herbalist Old Gwillim includes the columbine among his "Coronary Herbs," and describes it as "very medicinable for the dissolving of imposthumations or swellings in the throat." Culpeper recommended it to ease the pangs of childbirth. Native Americans once again agreed, suggesting that columbine seeds would speed childbirth when taken with wine. They also used all parts of the flower- stem, leaves, and roots- to treat a variety of ailments including heart, urinary, and gastrointestinal problems. A root-infused tea was used to treat headaches and fevers. And a lotion containing columbine was used to alleviate Poison Ivy inflammation and other skin rashes. In modern herbal medicine columbine is still used as an astringent and diuretic. Nonetheless, it is wise to be aware that the plant is a member of the poisonous Ranunculus family and all parts of the plant, including the seeds, are poisonous if ingested. And so the average gardener is well advised to appreciate this plant solely for its considerable virtues as a staple in the cottage garden - and nothing more.

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird