Species: Aquilegia vulgaris
Names: Columbine, Akelei, Elfenhandschuh, Frauenhandschuh, Fünf Vögerl zusamm, Granny’s Bonnet, Herba leonis = Lion’s herb, Kapuzinerhütli, Pfaffenkäpple, Schlotterhose, Taubenblume, Tauberln, Teufelsglocken, Venuswagen
The genus name comes from Latin aquila, meaning “eagle”, because the spurs of the petals are thought to resemble an eagle’s claw or beak. The English name columbine is another reference to the shape of the flower, which, if turned upside, looks like five doves assembled together. Hildegard von Bingen calls the flower old German aglaia, which per chance contains also the kabbalistic AGLA formula (Psalm 88, 53).
Description: There are about 60-70 known species in the genus, Aquilegia vulgaris being the type species. They are herbaceous perennial plants found in meadows, woodlands and higher altitudes throughout the northern hemisphere. They grow to 1.2 m tall, with branched, thinly hairy stems. The leaves are biternate; each leaf has three groups of three leaflets. They flower from May to June, with shades ranging from blue, purple, pink or red to white and yellow. The flowers are characterised by the spur of their petals. Eurasian columbines are pollinated by bumblebees and insects possessing long enough proboscis. Other species are pollinated exclusively by hawk moths or humming birds. The fruits are follicles, characterised by five points sticking out further than the petals, which are formed by the calix (chalis). In summer the fruits dry out and tear open, catapulting the black shiny seeds over several meters away from the mother plant. Besides this the seeds spread by wind and when the open seeds pods are shaken, e.g. through animals. Columbines are closely related to other members in the Ranunculaceae family, such as aconite and baneberries, and contain similar cardiotoxins.
CAUTION: The entire plant is cardiotoxic, especially the roots and seeds! In addition handling the plant may cause allergic reactions in some people. Do not ingest or handle carelessly!
In the garden: Columbines are popular garden flowers, with varieties and hybrids in single colours or bi-colours, and single or double forms. A popular strain is the Barlow series, a personal favorit being the dark “bordeaux” and “black Barlow” variants with double or filled flowers, which make a nice addition to gothic themed gardens. They spread readily via seed, if allowed to. Else flower heads should removed, once they fade.
Propagation: by seed – cold germinator. Cold-stratification: place seeds in a wet paper towel and inside a sealable plastic bag, which you keep in the fridge at 5-10°C for 4 weeks. Clean the seeds and replace old paper towels for fresh ones in case they turn moldy. Or sow directly in February. In nature the seeds will germinate stimulated by sun, warmth and snow melt. The cold treatment simulates this process and will cause the seeds to germinate when exposed to warmer temperatures. When sowing on soil, make sure to sow flat, press on and do not cover, as the seeds need light to germinate. Move young plants to the ground in spring. Columbines like a place in full sun or half-shade and thrive on loamy calciferous soil. As hardy perrenial plants columbines do not require any winter protection.
Uses: Native Americans consume the flowers as a condiment together with other herbs. The flowers are said to taste sweet and be safe if consumed in small amounts.
Folklore and symbolism: the flower features prominently in medieval and particularly gothic Christian iconography. It represents the holy spirit and the holy trinity (based on the flower’s own geometry), as well as humility, e.g. of Mother Mary and Christ. In another context seven columbines represent the seven spiritual gifts of the holy spirit, the seven cardinal virtues or the seven dolors of mother Mary.
Italians attributed a slightly different meaning to the flower, calling it amor nascosto, meaning “secret love” and turning the flower into a symbol of seduction. Leonardo da Vinci painted the flower beside Bacchus/Dionysos, god of wine, lust and ecstasy. Before Christians discovered the flower, the seeds had already been in use for centuries as part of flying ointments. Native Americans made philtres of columbine together with ginger, snake meat and gelatine.
A later superstition held that lions would eat the flower in spring to regain strength and virility, as the name herba leonis indicates. Some suggested to wash the membrum virile with a decoction of auqilegia. The herb strewn unto straw protected the couple that slept upon it from barrenness. In 17th century Europe the flower had an ambiguous standing, on the one hand it symbolized obscenity, on the other hand it was a symbol for humility, and it was common to plant on graves.
Herbal medicine: columbine was unknown in antique medicine, but features prominently in medieval medical manuscripts and was considered potency-boosting. One book comes up with 273 different uses for columbine. It was thought to act antiscorbutic, icteric, to cleanse the body, heal wounds and protect young couples from evil hexes.
Toxicity: Columbine contains a carcinogenic prussic acid glycoside. The roots and seeds contain the highest concentration of toxins, whereas the flowers may be edible in moderate amounts. The symptoms of poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dyspnea, heart trouble and stupor. Columbines further contains isoquinoline alcaloides, which are strongly irritant poisons.
Magical uses: The dried leaves and flowers are scattered around the home for protection against jealousy. I also see recipes calling for columbine seed being grinded and used in hand washes for courage or added to tea and bath water for clear sight. However, due to the toxicity I advice against such usage. As an alternative the root, seeds and flowers may be carried as an amulet or used in incense.
Magical attributions: courage, love, lust, blessing, purification, clairvoyance, seeing the truth, protection from the evil eye
Planet, element: Venus, water
Animals: lion, eagle, dove
Flower shapes and colors:
Shop note: I carry columbine root, flowers, leaf and seed