Practical ecological knowledge for the temperate reader.

Red Columbine - Aquilegia formosa


Aquilegia formosa "is a PERENNIAL growing to 0.8 m (2ft 7in) by 0.5 m (1ft 8in).
It is hardy to zone (UK) 3. It is in flower from May to August, and the seeds ripen from Jul to September. The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are pollinated by Bees."[PFAF]
Suitable for: "light (sandy) and medium (loamy) soils and prefers well-drained soil. Suitable pH: acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils. It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It prefers moist soil."[PFAF]

Status: Native [E-flora]


General: "Perennial herb from a taprooted, usually branched, woody stem-base; stems erect, 15-100 cm tall, smooth below, sparsely hairy and smooth above especially in inflorescence." [IFBC-E-flora]
Sparsely hairy and somewhat glandular above the inflorescence. [PCBC]
Leaves: "Basal leaves 10-40 cm long (including long stalks), much shorter than stems, twice 3-parted, the first set of 3 stalks 16-95 mm long (the leaflets not crowded), smooth or long soft-hairy, each leaflet 14-68 mm long, 2- to 3-times shallowly to deeply lobed, thin, usually hairy and with a bloom beneath, not glandular; stem leaves few, shorter-stalked." [IFBC-E-flora]
"Mainly basil, twice divided in 3s; blades hairless to hairy, green above, paler and glaucous beneath." [PCBC]
Flowers: "Inflorescence of several nodding to hanging flowers in a terminal cyme, the flowers 3-5 cm wide; bracts leaf-like but greatly reduced, unstalked; petals 5, distinct, the spurs red, knobbed, 13-21 mm long, stout, abruptly narrowed near middle, with straight tips, not curved in, the blades yellow, oblong, sometimes absent, to 6 mm long, 4-6 mm wide; sepals 5, pale to deep red, widely spreading, elliptic to lance-shaped, 10-26 mm long, 4-9 mm wide, tips pointed to sharp-pointed; stamens 12-17 mm long." [IFBC-E-flora]
"Red and Yellow with 5 long, straight, reddish spurs with bulbous, glandular tips; central tuft of stamens and styles protruding; usually 2-5 flowers, sometimes more numerous in vigourous plants, drooping." [PCBC]
Blooms: May - Aug. [TSFTK] July. [Jepson1] Summer.[Schofield]
Fruits: Follicles, 5, erect, egg-shaped, 15-25 (29) mm long, hairy; beaks 9-12 mm long; seeds black, egg-shaped, wrinkled and pebbled.[IFBC-E-flora]
Hairy, spreading tips and numerous seeds. [PCBC]

Habitat & Range
"Mesic to moist meadows, rocky slopes, thickets, clearings, roadsides and open forests in all zones except the alpine; Widely distributed in many habitats from the coast to the coastal mountains[60]. Moist woods and damp places in scrub and on banks from sea-level to 3000 metres[187]." [PFAF]
Range: "common throughout BC; N to SW AK and S YT, E to SW AB and S to UT and CA." [IFBC-E-flora]
"Western N. America - Alaska to California, east to W. Montana and Utah." [PFAF]

Ecology: Variety of moist, open to partly shaded sites; meadows, rocky slopes and beaches, forest glades, clearings, roadsides; common from the lowlands to timberline. [PCBC]
USDA Flower Colour: Red
USDA Blooming Period: Spring
USDA Fruit/Seed characteristics:

Colour: Brown
Present from Summer to Fall [USDA-E-flora]

Ecological Indicator
"A shade-tolerant/intolerant, montane to subalpine, Western North American forb dis­tributed equally in the Pacific and Cordilleran regions. Occurs on fresh to very moist, nitrogen-rich soils within subalpine boreal, temperate, and cool mesothermal climates; its occurrence decreases with increasing elevation. Scattered in broad-leaved forests on flooded sites, often inhabits exposed mineral soils in early-seral communities on water-receiving sites. A nitrophytic species characteristic of Moder and Mull humus forms." [IPBC-E-flora]


Edible Uses

Other Uses

Medicinal Uses

"Western columbine was quite frequently employed by a number of native North American Indian tribes who used it to treat a variety of complaints[257]. It is little used in modern herbalism." [PFAF]
"Aboriginals in other parts of North America used various parts in medicinal preparations for diarrhea, dizziness, aching joints and possibly venereal disease." [PCBC]

Folk Use

"This plant is called 'red rain-flowers' in Haida. Haida children were warned not to pick the flowers or it would rain." [PCBC]



  • AQUILEGNINE Seed: [DukePhyt]
  • CAPRIC-ACID Seed: [DukePhyt]
  • CAPRONIC-ACID Seed: [DukePhyt]
  • CAPRYLIC-ACID Seed: [DukePhyt]
  • FAT Seed 269,000 ppm; [DukePhyt]
  • HCN Plant: [DukePhyt]
  • LAURIC-ACID Seed: [DukePhyt]
  • LINOLEIC-ACID Seed 64,560 ppm; [DukePhyt]
  • LIPASE Seed: [DukePhyt]
  • MAGNOFLORINE Root: [DukePhyt]
  • MYRISTIC-ACID Seed: [DukePhyt]
  • NITRILE-GLYCOSIDE Seed: [DukePhyt]
  • OLEIC-ACID Seed 16,140 ppm; [DukePhyt]
  • PALMITIC-ACID Seed 21,520 ppm; [DukePhyt]
  • PALMITOLEIC-ACID Seed: [DukePhyt]
  • PROTEIN Seed 206,000 ppm; [DukePhyt]
  • STEARIC-ACID Seed 5,100 ppm; [DukePhyt]
  • TRANS-5,CIS-9,CIS-12-OCTDECATRIENOIC-ACID Seed 161,000 ppm; [DukePhyt]


Columbines are often added to rock gardens and flower beds of perennials. Propagate by division or seeds, and plant in light, sandy soil. [Schofield]

"Succeeds in ordinary garden soil, preferring a moist but not wet soil and a sheltered sunny position[1] or partial shade[187]. Intolerant of heavy clay[200]. A very ornamental plant, it is hardy to about -15oc[187]. A short-lived species, often dying out after 2 - 3 years, though it usually produces seed prolifically[200, 233]. However, they are very apt to hybridize with other members of the genus and so it becomes difficult to keep a species true to type if more than one is grown in the garden[200]. This species is closely related to A. canadensis[200] and A. flavescens[60], often hybridizing with A. flavescens in the wild where their ranges overlap[270]. Plants seem to be immune to the predations of rabbits[233]. A greedy plant, inhibiting the growth of nearby plants, especially legumes[54]." [PFAF]


"Seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in a cold frame. The seed can be slow to germinate[200]. Stored seed can be sown in late winter in a cold frame. When large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in a cold frame for their first winter. Plant out in late spring or early summer. Division in spring[200]." [PFAF]




"Perennial herb; caudex thick, branched to not. Stem: 1–few, ascending to erect, branched to not, scapose to not, glabrous to glandular-hairy. Leaf: basal 1–3-ternate, petiole generally long; cauline 0–few, generally much reduced, deeply 3-lobed to 1–2-ternate, petiole short to ± 0; segments generally wedge-shaped to obovate, abaxially pale green to glaucous, adaxially green to gray, glabrous to glandular. Inflorescence: few-flowered raceme or flower 1, terminal; axis, pedicels glabrous to glandular; flower buds generally pendent. Flower: sepals 5, petal-like, spreading [to ± reflexed]; petals 5, spurs between sepals, mouths < to > 90° to exposed filaments; pistils generally 5. Fruit: follicle, glabrous to glandular. Seed: smooth, shiny, brown to black.
± 70 species: temperate North America, Eurasia. Many species, hybrids cultivated as ornamental; natural hybrids common; recent adaptive radiation with specialized pollinations syndromes (bee, hummingbird, hawkmoth)." [Jepson]

Genera in Aquilegia: 117 Accepted Names (including subsp. and var. but not syn) []

Local Species;

  1. Aquilegia formosa - Red Columbine

Related Species
Aquilegia canadensis; Young Meskwaki people of North America mixed the ripe capsules of this species with their tobacco (Nicotiana spp.). Reportedly, this gave it a more refined flavor (Smith 1928).[UAPDS]
A. vulgaris; A European species. Leaves, Roots and Seeds are used. [ModHerb]

Medicinal Action and Uses: Astringent. It has been employed on the continent, but according to Linnaeus, with very unsatisfactory results, children having sometimes been poisoned by it when given in too lare doses. It is no longer used.[ModHerb - A. vulgaris]
Culpepper tells us; "The leaves of Columbine are successfully used in lotions for sore mouths and throats.
...The spaniards used to eat a piece of the root thereof in a morning fasting many days together, to help them when troubled with stone. The seed taken in wine with a little saffron removes obstructions of the liver and is good for the yellow jaundice." [ModHerb - A. vulgaris]

Columbine Aquilegia vulgaris
Medicinal Parts: The medicinal parts are the stems and leaves, the aerial parts gathered and dried in flowering season, and the seeds and preparations of the whole plant also gathered in flowering season Habitat: Columbine is indigenous to central and southern Europe and is also found in the eastern U.S. and Asia. Production: Columbine herb is the complete aerial part of Aquilegia vulgaris harvested while in flower and dried. ACTION S AND PHARMACOLOGY
Cyanogenic glycosides: trigloquinine, dhurrin (presumably only traces)
It is not known which constituents are responsible for the herb's effects. The cyanogenic glycoside trigloquinine could possibly be of toxicological interest but is probably only present in traces.
Unproven Uses: Columbine is used internally for scurvy and jaundice; the herb is also used to treat states of agitation due to its supposedly tranquilizing effect. Homeopathic Uses: The herb is used to treat menopausal vomiting and dysmenorrhea in young women. It is also used to treat the sensation of a lump in the throat (globus hystericus) and nervous shaking.
No health hazards or side effects are known in conjunction with the proper administration of designated therapeutic dosages.
Poisonings from the leaves because of the cyanogenic glycoside content have not been observed. The amount of hydrocyanic acid that is released from the leaves is apparently too small to cause toxicity.
Mode of Administration: Columbine is available in tablets and capsules for internal use. Homeopathic Dosage: 5 to 1 0 drops, l tablet or 5 to 1 0 globules l to 3 times a day or l ml injection solution sc twice a week (HABl). [PDR]

(Folk credentials questionable) Though Aquilegia vulgaris has plausibly been claimed as indigenous in limestone thickets in Donegal,56 it must surely have been too rare in that county to have served as a wild source for the use of the leaves there to poultice swellings, at least at the time of the one record for that.57 The plant has long been grown in cottage gardens and, once introduced, reproduces very freely.[MPFT]

COLUMBINE (Aquilegia vulgaris L.) [HMH Duke]
Activities (Columbine) — Astringent (f; CRC); Cholagogue (f; MAD; PHR); Collyrium (f; MAD); Cyanogenic (f; PH2); Diaphoretic (f; CRC; WO2); Diuretic (f; CRC; WO2); Emmenagogue (f; CRC); Litholytic (f; MAD); Narcotic (f; CRC); Oxytocic (f; WO2); Poison (1; HH2); Resolvent (f; CRC); Tranquilizer (f; HH2; PHR; PH2)
Indications (Columbine) — Agitation (f; PHR; PH2); Cancer, breast (f; CRC; JLH); Cancer, stomach (f; CRC; JLH); Cancer, uterus (f; CRC; JLH); Cholecystosis (f; PHR); Debility (f; MAD); Dermatosis (f; HH2; MAD; WO2); Dropsy (f; MAD); Dysmenorrhea (f; CRC; HH2; MAD; PH2); Eczema (f; CRC); Enterosis (f; PHR); Erysipelas (f; MAD); Fever (f; CRC; WO2); Fistula (f; CRC; HH2); Fracture (f; MAD); Gastrosis (f; PHR); Globus Hystericus (f; PH2); Halitosis (f; MAD); Headache (f; MAD); Hepatosis (f; CRC; MAD); Hysteria (f; CRC; PH2); Insomnia (f; CRC; MAD); Jaundice (f; CRC; HH2; MAD; PHR; PH2); Measles (f; MAD); Menopause (f; PH2); Nervousness (f; HH2; MAD; PHR; PH2); Ophthalmia (f; CRC; HH2); Pertussis (f; MAD); Pharyngosis (f; WO2); Photosensitivity (f; MAD); Psoriasis (f; MAD); Rash (f; MAD); Respirosis (f; MAD); Scurvy (1; PHR; PH2); Sore (f; CRC); Sore Throat (f; CRC; WO2); Splenosis (f; MAD); Stomatosis (f; CRC; HH2; WO2); Stone (f; CRC; MAD); Syncope (f; MAD); Tremor (f; CRC); Uterosis (f; CRC); Water Retention (f; CRC; WO2); Wound (f; MAD).
Dosages (Columbine) — Only homeopathic doses given (PH2)
Contraindications, Interactions, and Side Effects (Columbine) — Not covered (AHP). None known (PHR). “Hazards and/or side effects not known for proper therapeutic dosages” (PH2). Poisoning due to HCN not observed (PHR). Human fatalities reported (LEL).


Columbine - Aquilegia spp.

"These perennials produce spurred bloom in lively colors that blend gracefully with their attractive sage-green foliage. Some species have short spurs, others have long. Some are bicolored as well. Color range from pastels through deep red, purple, and blue, and flowers appear in spring and summer. Plants may be 8 to 20 inches tall depending on the variety. Dwarf kinds are good for rock gardens and edgings.
Days to Germination: 21 to 25 days at 700F to 75 0F (21 0C to 24 0C)
Growing Conditions: Columbines like moist, rich soil and need water in a dry season. Allow 8 to 20 inches between plants, according to plant size. Plants do well in light shade. Light promotes germination of the seeds. Prechilling helps also.
Remarks: Individual plants sometimes die out after four to five years, but they self-sow readily and may spread charmingly all over the garden. Columbines have long taproots and should be transplanted only when young."[NSSH Bubel]


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