OUTDOORS: The legend and lore of the columbine
’Tis the land where the columbines grow,
Overlooking the plains far below,
While the cool summer breeze in the evergreen trees
Softly sings where the columbines grow.
— A.J. Fynn, “Where the Columbines Grow,” 1915.
With summer well under way and local flora in bloom, there’s a good chance you’ve come across our treasured state flower: The Colorado Blue Columbine. Found everywhere from sunny aspen groves to moist alpine meadows, it is a widespread and pervasive species that proudly symbolizes Colorado’s unique beauty. Its vibrant white petals and blue sepals catch the attention of hikers and mountaineers from June through August at elevations between 7,000 and 10,000 feet and its sweet aroma catches the attention of bees, hummingbirds and butterflies who feed on its nectar and junco and sparrows who gnaw on its seeds.
Discovered at Pike’s Peak in 1820 by mountaineer Edwin James, the Colorado Blue Columbine was later adopted as the state flower in 1899 after winning a statewide vote by local schoolchildren. Shortly thereafter, in 1925 the Colorado General Assembly enacted a law prohibiting the uprooting of the flower on public lands and limiting the gathering of buds, blossoms and stems to 25 per day.
Legend has it that the blue columbine’s vibrant blue, white and gold hues symbolize the spirit and beauty of the state. The blue is said to embody the clear Colorado sky, the white to denote the mountains’ virgin powder snow, and gold representative of the state’s rich mining history. While the root of this legend remains unknown, Native American tribes had a variety of recorded uses for the columbine. Most notably, the Omaha and Ponca Indians used it to concoct a love potion by chewing on the seeds to create a paste and rubbing it into their palm to shake the hand of their desired loved one. Other tribes, like the Pawnee Indians, used the columbine for medicinal purposes, making a tea from its roots to alleviate diarrhea, stomachaches and joint pain and pressing the seeds to cure fever and headaches. Botanists today have identified the Colorado Blue Columbine as antispasmodic (suppressing muscle spasms), diaphoretic (inducing perspiration) and parasiticidal (destructive to parasites). Yet despite these properties, columbines are considered toxic and should not be ingested by humans.
While the blue columbine may be protected as Colorado’s state flower, it is found all over the Rocky Mountains from Montana south to New Mexico and west to Idaho, Arizona and Nevada. Moreover, the blue columbine is just one of more than 60 species of columbine throughout North America; other Colorado species include red columbine, yellow columbine and dwarf columbine. The Colorado Blue Columbine is often confused with Rocky Mountain Columbine as they overlap in range and have both blue and white flowers; however, the two can be distinguished by the shape of their spurs. The Colorado Blue Columbine has long straight spurs whereas those of the Rocky Mountain variety are hooked and significantly shorter.
The flower’s Latin name, Aquilegia caerulea, and common name, columbine, both refer to its unique shape. The genus Aquilegia comes from the Latin word “aquilnum” meaning “eagle-like” or “water collector,” referring to the claw-like spurred petals that look like eagles’ talons as well as its tendency to gather water on its petals. The back of the flower has also been known to resemble a dove and thus the name “columbine” comes from the Latin word “columba” meaning “dove.”
Ironically, these names are somewhat contradictory as one is a bird of peace and the other a bird of prey. But regardless of what shape you see in within its spurs, just remember to leave the blue columbine in the wild and help preserve its iconic beauty as a symbol of Colorado pride.
Olivia Arnow is a seasonal field science educator at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon.
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