Columbines: Enchanting and Toxic!

What caught my eye against the red-rust bricks was the softness of the purple-blue and white petals, like bits of angel wings.

The shapes made me think of cranes and swans and butterfly wings; even dragons. They had a most delicate appearance, ethereal.

As it sometimes happens, an object in death can be as beautiful as it was when alive, just different.

The spent columbine petals lay assembled in various random poses, but could not have been more artistic if they had been purposely placed. I ran for my camera.

These magical columbines came with the house I bought 13 years ago. For years, there were very few, just about hidden beneath some shrubs. It took me a few years to discover them, coming to recognize their distinctive rounded lobed leaves. I quickly came to cherish the secretive blooms.

By this year they have spread and I had more little purple flowers than ever. Some gardeners almost regard them as pests. I wholeheartedly invite them to spread across the entire yard.

Widespread Wildflowers

Wild columbines are native to Europe, Asia and Northern Africa, but they have been widely cultivated as garden flowers in the United States. The five-petaled flowers come in many colors, from purple and blue, to pink and orange.

Aquilegia, their Latin name, pays tribute to the flower shapes, with spurs jutting out from the rear.

These spurs hold nectar and were thought to resemble eagle claws or beaks. Aquila is Latin for “eagle.”

Traditional uses

Columbines are said to symbolize wisdom, strength and happiness. It has served as a religious symbol of purity and has appeared in paintings with the Virgin Mary. It was also considered sacred to the goddess Venus.

Like many wildflowers, columbines have been used medicinally since the Middle Ages. All parts have been used, including the roots, flowers, leaves and seeds. The medicinal uses were many. It has served as a remedy for fevers, rhinitis, swollen lymph nodes, bloody coughs, jaundice and gall bladder ailments. The plant contains several alkaloids, triterpenoid saponins, flavonoids, and small amounts of cyanogenic glycosides.

Though columbines are considered toxic, the flowers have some astringent and antiseptic properties. The root has been used as a topical treatment for eczema. It is not recommended to consume any parts of the plant, as it contains cardiogenic toxins which can cause gastroenteritis and heart palpitations. Ingestion of large amounts of the fresh herb can cause convulsions, breathing problems and heart weakness.

Best to enjoy these storied flowers from a distance!

Just for fun, take your own Rorschach test: see what the petal shapes remind you of.

Before death