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Aquilegia formosa

Family: Ranunculaceae
Pronounced: ack-wi-LEE-gee-uh for-MOE-suh

Geographic Origin:
Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Utah, Washington, Wyoming, Yukon
Plant Group:
Sunset zones: All (Western).
USDA zones: 4-8.
Heat zones: 7-1.
Mature size:
Height: 2-3 feet (60-90 cm).
Width: 18 inches (45 cm).
Flowering period:
Spring to early summer.
Flowering attributes:
Stout, straight, red spurs, red sepals and yellow petals.
Leaf attributes:
Leaves are green on top and glaucous underneath; twice divided in threes.
Full sun or filtered shade.
Fertile, moist, well-drained soil.
Propagation Methods:
Pot up fresh seed and place in a cold frame for 3 months of cold stratification. Bring into warm conditions where they should begin to sprout. Plant out seedlings when young, since they are tap-rooted. Once established in the garden, allow it to set seed for new plants. The plants will cross-pollinate with other varieties of columbine, so keep these natives well away from others when saving seed.
Pruning Methods:
Dead head spent flowers to prolong bloom. When plants are finished blooming cut down to the ground to rejuvenate plant with new growth. If you want to save seed, let a few seed heads develop.
Pests and Diseases:
In spring, leaf miners tunnel through the surface of the leaves, leaving unsightly foliage. To remedy this, cut the stems down to the ground when plants finish flowering to rejuvenate the foliage. The leaf miner larvae are gone by the time the second growth begins.

Rainy Side Notes

Aquilegia comes from the Latin word aquil, meaning eagle, referring to the shape of the petals. Formosa means beautiful. Indeed, our native columbine fits the descriptive epithet. The common name, columbine, stems from the Latin word, columbina, meaning dove-like.

On walks through alpine meadows of the Olympic Mountains, I see the columbine growing on its rocky slopes. The plants adapt to many conditions, from timberline to sea level.


"Don't pick the flowers," warned the Haida, of British Columbia, to their children, "or it will rain." They called the columbine the red rain-flower.

Indigenous people used this perennial for many different purposes. Some thought the flower, as well as the whole plant, was a good luck charm. The Miwok from California ate it as a vegetable after boiling the early spring greens. The Hanaksiala, from the central coast of British Columbia, treated the flowers like candy, the children sucking out the sweet nectar from the spurs. The Yurok out of Northern California bit off the spurs to get to the sweetness, something I remember doing as a child. In turn, I taught my own daughter how to enjoy the nectar from the flower.

I am amazed how many uses indigenous people found for this plant. Medicinally, the plant was used as an analgesic and antirheumatic by rubbing the leaves over aching joints. Some chewed the leaves for coughs and sore throats and made a decoction of roots for a cold remedy. They made perfumes by chewing the seeds and rubbing it on their bodies and clothing, and not from the flower, although we often think it is the source for fragrance. I will have to try this myself, just to satisfy my curiosity of what the scent is like. The columbine was considered a love medicine plant; the women used it as a charm, to gain men's affection.

In the Garden

A short-lived perennial, Aquilegia formosa is a good nectar source for hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. Other birds such as finches and sparrows eat the seeds. I remember the first time I watched a bumblebee cut holes in the spurs of the flower to gain access to the nectar, bypassing the blossom's pollinating system. The bees cheated the flower out of its means for pollination. I speculated: would the flower eventually evolve to have a tougher spur the bees could not poke a hole through? Obviously, the bees found a way to access the nectar that previously only the long tongues of hummingbirds and butterflies could reach, through the front door. Even though the bees cheat the plants, other pollination occurs. The hummingbirds and butterflies do the job, and the columbines set seed for future generations.

The plants promiscuously cross-pollinate with other varieties of columbine, so keep these natives well away from others if you save seed and want to have a pure strain of the species.

Rainy Side Gardeners —