Aquilegia canadensis

Wild Columbine

Wild Columbine, Photo © by Earl J.S. Rook
Wild Columbine
Photo © by Earl J.S. Rook

Flora, fauna, earth, and sky...
The natural history of the northwoods


  • Aquilegia, from the Latin, aquilinum, "eagle like", because the spurs suggested the talons of an eagle to Linnaeus; OR, from the Latin word for "water collector," alluding to the nectar in the spurs of its petals.
  • canadensis, from the Latin, "of Canada"
  • Columbine, from the Latin columba, "dove", the spurred petals perhaps having suggested a ring of doves around a fountain.
  • Other common names include: American Columbine, Canada Columbine, Eastern Columbine, Meetinghouses, Rock Bells, Honeysuckle, Rock Lily, Cluckies, Jack-in-Trousers, Wild Honeysuckle, Granny's Bonnets, Dancing Fairies, Ancolie du Canada (Qué)


  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Magnoliophyta, the Angiosperms (flowering plants)
      • Class Magnoliopsida, the Dicotyledons
      • Subclass Magnoliidae
        • Order Ranunculales, the Buttercups
          • Family Ranunculaceae, the Buttercups, with Anemone, Clematis, Coptis (Gold Thread), Delphinium (Larkspurs), Hepatica, Ranunculus (Buttercups), and Thalictrum (Meadow Rues).
            • Genus Aquilegia, the Columbines
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 18730
  • Also known as Aquilegia australis, Aquilegia coccinea, Aquilegia phoenicantha
  • Ranunculus is Latin for "a little frog", the name applied by Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) to a group of plants in this family that grows where frogs abound.
  • Genus Aquilegia, a circumboreal group of about 70 species, 20 native to North America, in nearly every state.


  • A delicate but hardy perennial herb 12"-30" tall, growing from a stout rootstalk.
  • Leaves both basal and alternate on the stem, 1-3 times compound, with each division in threes. Those at base and on lower stem are large (to l' long) with long primary and secondary stalks, but become much reduced upward. The small leaflets, in threes, are more or less oval with rounded lobes.
  • Stems slender, much-branched.
  • Roots fibrous, short-lived.
  • Rhizomes thin, woody.
  • Flowers showy, spurred, 1"-2" inches long; nodding at the tips of slender branches with spurs pointing upward. Five tubular, red petals with yellow lips alternate with five flat, reddish sepals; numerous yellow stamens project downward well beyond the petals and sepals; five green pistils with long thin styles are surrounded by the stamens. Distinctive petals extend backward into long hollow spurs ending in nectar-filled knobs. The flower is adapted to long-tongued nectar-feeders, notably hawk moths and hummingbirds. The constriction in the funnel-shaped spur just below the secreting bulbous tip prevents small bees from getting at the nectar.
  • Fruit erect, five parallel ascending follicles with outcurving tips.



  • Nova Scotia to the Northwest Territories, south to Florida and Texas.


  • Open sites that are steep and rocky but somewhat moist, such as wooded bluffs of streams, wooded slopes, streambanks, banks and slopes of deep ravines, limestone bluffs and ledges, borders and clearings in deciduous or mixed woods or thickets.
  • Thin soils over granitic bedrock, steep hillsides of thin loess over limestone or quartzite bedrock, and on gravelly glacial moraine.
  • Moderately shade intolerant. Sometimes abundant on roadsides, sandbanks, or recent excavations.


  • Resprouts from the rootstalk following fire.


  • Birds: Pollinated by hummingbirds, which may depend on Wild Columbine as an important source of nectar.


  • An old-fashioned garden plant, cultivated in Europe and America since the mid-1600s.
  • Native Americans used infusions from different parts of the plant for a variety of ailments from heart trouble to fever and even as a wash for poison-ivy.
  • When pulverized, the seeds, a commodity of intertribal commerce, were rubbed on the hands by men as a love charm and also used in some tribes as a man's perfume.


  • Nodding flowers are red, streaked with yellow. Spring bloom. Attractive divided foliage. Good hummingbird plant. Long lived and reliable. An excellent garden plant. The medium textured, light green foliage makes it a valuable landscape plant long after the blooms fade.


  • Reproduction from seed; no vegetative reproduction has been reported.
  • The five erect, long-beaked fruits are dry pods, which split along the inner side to shed numerous, shiny black seeds.
  • Pollinated by nectar feeding visitors and bees visiting for the pollen. The flower is adapted to prevent self-pollination. Stamens mature first, starting from the outside ring and moving toward the center, shedding all their pollen before the styles emerge at the mouth of the flower and spread their feathery stigmas to receive pollen. Even if the male and female phases overlap briefly, pollen cannot fall upward from the longer stamens onto the shorter styles in the hanging flowers.


  • Easy to grow from seeds or from divisions of rootstocks in the spring.
  • Sow seeds from spring to early summer or in flats during winter for transplanting outdoors in spring. Newly ripened seeds will germinate without treatment if sown outdoors in seedbeds or flats. Nursery stock should be set out in the spring or in the fall when dormant.
  • Seeds need to be exposed to a certain amount of sunlight before they will germinate.
  • Seedlings do not flower the first season.


  • Hardy to USDA Zone 2 (average minimum annual temperature -50ºF)
  • Cultural Requirements
    • Light: does best in light shade or with a few hours of direct sun but will tolerate full sun if daytime temperatures are not too hot.
    • Soil: well drained, loose, slightly acid, sandy loam with organic matter, but will grow in a wide range of soils, including clays, especially if they drain well and have organic matter added.
    • Water: moist
  • Several cultivars are available.
  • Cultivars and species available by mail order from specialty suppliers or at local nurseries
  • Naturally occurs in moist, rocky soil in partial shade, but readily adapts to most garden conditions.
  • Plants are short-lived, 3-5 years at best, but self-sow freely, new plants spreading rapidly in the garden. They cross readily; if you want seedlings to be like their parents, plant only one species. If growing multiple species, keep them as far apart, but expect some crossbreeding.
  • You can sow any kind of columbine seed now for flowers next summer. Scatter seed in a place that gets filtered sunlight (in woodland edges and under trees, for example). The soil should have good drainage but contain enough organic matter to keep moisture around plant roots at bloom time.
  • Pests: Like all Aquilegia, prone to post-bloom leafminer infestation. The tiny insects devour intricate tunnels throughout the interiors of the leaves, but do not constitute a threat to the health of the plant. The best solution is to learn to live with them.
  • Disease: Susceptible to mildew; starts to look ragged after flowers fade. Screen with later blooming plants.



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Last Updated on 26 February, 2004