Monday, August 13, 2012

Aquilegia (Columbine) - The Eagle And The Dove

Aquilegia canadensis by Jennifer Anderson @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Aquilegia (Columbine) - The Eagle And The Dove

The name Aquilegia (a-kwi-LEE-jee-a) is derived from the Latin aquila, referring to the talon-like structures or "spurs" on its flowers. The name "columbine", derived from the Latin word for "dove" (columba), was given because someone observed that, viewed from below, the petals resemble a cluster of doves. So, in one plant genus we have a vision of two very different birds.

Some of my dearest childhood memories are of hiking in the mountains with my elders, brother and cousins. Actually, we didn't hike; we strolled. For us children, strolling and stopping was a source of frustration. We were always in a hurry wanting to reach the summit. But we were usually accompanied by at least one real old elder who slowed us down a lot. Typically, the oldest was also the most knowledgeable about plants, or who felt like stopping to talk about them more. "Boys, now boys," grandfather would say, "this is...", and he'd probe it with his walking staff and proceed to tell us what ailment it was good for. After he died, my dad and uncles would do the same.

So I was leisurely, thoughtfully introduced to Aquilegia. In the Rocky Mountains it was Aquilegia coerulea growing beside a brook. It was Aquilegia canadensis along the Blue Ridge.

Actually, there was one thing that could temporarily distract me from reaching the summit. If the teaching elder would say, "Indians used this to...", I was ready to stop and learn. I learned that columbine was used to treat stomach cramps; reduce fever, pain and swelling; kill parasites; stop bleeding and make you pee. I also learned that little water droplets sometimes collected in the tops of the flowers below the spurs, which was kind of a neat thing to discover. I sometimes wondered if I could take something to kill pinworms, why it wouldn't kill me, too. I never asked. But, I suppose it's because Aquilegia is somewhat toxic, though not dangerous if taken as directed by a knowledgeable doctor.

From those woodland strolls, I also learned a principle by my elders' examples which means much more to me now that I'm the elder often inclined to mosey and pause at flowers.

"All that is needed for calm happiness
Hast thou not here?
Hast thou not pleasure in the golden bough
That shields thee from the day's fierce glow?
Canst thou not raise thy breast to catch,
On the soft moss beside the brook,
The sun's last rays at even?
Here thou mayst wander through the flowers' fresh dew,
Pluck from the overflow
The forest-trees provide,
Thy choicest food,--mayst quench
Thy light thirst at the silvery spring.
Oh friend, true happiness
Lies in contentedness,
And that contentedness
Finds everywhere enough."
"Oh, wise one!" said the eagle, while he sank
In deep and ever deep'ning thought--
"Oh Wisdom! like a dove thou speakest!"
The Eagle And The Dove - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

If you'd like to grow columbine, you probably can. Of the 60 or so Aquilegia species, 22 are native to North America. One Aquilegia vulgaris, native to Europe, thrives here, too. You'll find columbines in practically every state and province. Among the various species and hybrids, there are columbines cold hardy or heat-tolerant enough to thrive from USDA climate zones 3 to 10.

Choose a site in full sun to full shade. In hotter climates, partial shade is preferred. Before planting, you'll need to know the pH level of your soil. Aquilegias generally prefer slightly moist, well-drained soil with pH ranging from 6.6 to 7.5. Take a sample to your nearest Cooperative Extension Service office for analysis. The fee is nominal.

If soil is compacted, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8 inches deep, removing all traces of weeds.  If the soil is high in organic matter and friable, it may not require cultivation.  Compost may be incorporated into the soil, if necessary.  Incorporate 10-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4 inches to 6 inches of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants.

Space the plants between 12 inches to 24 inches apart. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container. Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 1 inch deep.

Columbines are suitable for mixed perennial borders, hummingbird and butterfly gardens, medicinal plant and native plant collections.

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