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Environmental Studies

Aquilegia canadensis (Wild Columbine/Eastern Red Columbine) Ranunculaceae

Aquilegia canadensis is commonly known by the names wild columbine or eastern red columbine.  It is well known for its beautiful red and yellow flowers.  It is technically a perennial herb that grows from a stout caudex to approximately 1 to 2.5 feet tall.  It has a short, partially-underground, erect stem that is round with green to reddish green color.  Its roots are fibrous.  Its leaves are a green to blue-green color and when mature are up to 2 inches wide and 3 inches long.  The leaves are ternately compound (means they are divided into groups of three leaflets) and they have long petioles that are also glaborous or pubescent.

The beautiful flower is approximately 1.5 to 2 inches long and hangs downward from its stalk.  Each flower has five petals, five petal-like sepals and strongly exerted stamens and styles.  The petals are yellow at the rounded tip and red to purplish-red at the base of its rounded nectar-spur.  After flowering, each flower is replaced by five pod shaped follicles with long beaks. The flowers are actually hermaphrodite as they contain both male and female organs.  The flowers are predominately pollinated by bees and hummingbirds that use its nectar as a source of food. 

Wild Columbine begins growth in the early spring and stops growth in the late autumn. It flowers between March and July, bears fruit from June to August and releases its seeds in early to mid Autumn.      The above ground portions of the plant become senescent in late autumn and the plant dies back to the caudex. This plant is found as far Northeast as Nova Scotia, as far northwest as the Northwest Territories, as far southeast as Florida and as far southwest as Texas. It grows in elevations from sea level to about 1600 m. They generally grow in rocky sites that are fairly moist. These types of areas can include rocky slopes both open and wooded such as stone bluffs, slopes of deep ravines, steep stream and river banks. It is also moderately shade intolerant and very tolerant to cold.

Physical characteristics

Leaf: The Aquilegia canadensis leaves are a green to blue-green color. Initially as a young plant, only basal leaves are produced.  Later as a more mature plant, alternate leaves are produced.  These later leaves are up to 2 inches wide and 3 inches long and are ternately compound (means they are divided into groups of three leaflets) and they have long petioles that are also glaborous or pubescent. The leaf retention is semi-evergreen.

Flower | Seeds: The entire flower is approximately 1.5 to 2 inches long and hangs downward from its stalk.  Each flower has five petals, five petal-like sepals and strongly exerted stamens and styles.  The petals are yellow at the rounded tip and red to purplish-red at the base of its rounded nectar-spur.  The sepals are the same color as the nectar-spur base of the petals and are ovate in shape.  Interestingly enough, the flowers have no scent.  After flowering, each flower is replaced five pod shaped follicles with long beaks. The flowers are actually hermaphrodite as they contain both male and female organs.  The flowers are predominately pollinated by bees and hummingbirds that use its nectar as a source of food.

Fruit: Aquilegia canadensis has five parallel, erect ascending follicles with out-curving tips.

Stems: While the overall plant grows to approximately 1 to 2.5 feet long, the stems are short, partially underground and erect.  The stems are round with a green to reddish green color.

Root: Aquilegia canadensis has a fibrous root system that is short lived. 

Life span/Reproduction: Aquilegia canadensis is a perennial plant.  It reproduces via seeds only, not vegetatively.

Care:  These plants are very durable and really need no special care before winter.  They are very tolerant of cold weather.

 

Ecological characteristics

Wild Columbine begins growth in the early spring and stops growth in the late autumn.  It flowers between March and July, bears fruit from June to August and releases its seeds in early to mid Autumn. The above ground portions of the plant become senescent in late autumn and the plant dies back to the caudex.   This plant is found as far northeast as Nova Scotia, as far northwest as the Northwest Territories, as far Southeast as Florida and as far Southwest as Texas.  It grows in elevations from sea level to about 1600 m.  In Illinois, it grows in most northern areas of the state, but seems to be scare or absent in south and central parts of the state.  This is the only Aquilege sp. native to Illinois.  Cultivated columbine that are sold commercially usually have Aquilegia vulagaris (the eastern Columbine) as their ancestry.

The Wild Columbine generally grows on open, wooded or rocky slopes and can grow with minimal soil and moderate to dry moisture levels.  Common growing areas would include rocky open areas, sandy open savannahs, wooded slopes, thinly wooded bluffs, shaded areas of limeston cliffs and open areas along railroad tracks.  It is also found over solid rock foundations with very little topsoil such as grantic bedrock, quartzite bedrock, limestone and gravel glacier moraine.  It can grow in nutrionally poor soils and a wide range acidic, neutral or alkaline pH levels of soil, although it most prefers pH levels 6.1 to 6.5 (mildly acidic) to 6.6 to 7.5 (neutral).  It prefers moist to dry conditions and soil that is loamy, rocky or sandy.  It generally grows best in light shade to partial sun (young plants need some shade) although mature plants can tolerate full sun  It is not succeptible to frost damage.  Once established, the plant is easy to maintain

Wild Columbine sprouts from the caudex after a fire.  This plant is very hearty to survive and propagate after wildfires.  Thus, this contributes to its establishment in areas where it is able to survive a wildfire and other plants are not.

Importance to the ecosystem

Wild columbine has little importance as a food source to most herbivores (domesticated or wild) because of its toxicity.  However, its nectar is a food source for bees and hummingbirds and its foliage is a food source for many insects (even if these insects are considered pests by most people). 

Relationship with other species

Non-human: Wild columbine has little impact as forage for both domesticated and wild herbivores because of its inedibility (toxicity) to herbivores, but also because of its predominate location on steep and rocky surfaces.  It is unpalatable to horses, poorly tolerated by cattle and only fairly palatable to sheep and goats.  It is mildly to moderately toxic to most other wild herbivores.

Wild columbine is important source of nectar for bumblebees and hummingbirds.  The bumblebee may also collect pollen for its larvae.  In turn, the bumblebees and hummingbirds help in the pollination process.  Other insects such as Erynnis luciliius (Columbine duskywing), Papaipema leucostigma (borer moth sp.), Pristophora agulege (Columbine sawfly) and Phytomyza spp. (leaf miner flies) also use the foliage of this plant as a source of food for their larvae.  

Humans:  Although wild columbine has no known toxicity issues with humans, care should still be taken when handling or touching this plant as it belongs to the Ranunculaceae family that does have many specifies with known toxicity issues for humans and animals.  The flowers, however, are edible to humans and animals.  They can make a colorful addition to salads.

Various parts of the plant are used for (supposed) medicinal purposes such as an antispasmodic, a diaphoric, a parasiticide and a salve.  The root supposedly can be used (if chewed or brewed into a tea) for the treatment of diarrhea, stomach aches, uterine bleeding.  A hair wash can be made from the boiled plant. 

Pests:  Pests would include those insects that each the Wild Columbine for food as mentioned above (Erynnis luciliius (Columbine duskywing), Papaipema leucostigma (borer moth sp.), Pristophora agulege (Colmbine sawfly) and server Phytomyza spp. (leaf miner flies) also use the foliage of this plant as a source of food for their larvae).

Other interesting facts 

  • The name Aquilegia comes from the Latin word aquila which means eagle and refers to the spurred petals that many believe resemble an eagles talons.
  •  Interestingly enough, the flowers have no scent.
  • COMMON NAMES:
    •  red columbine
    •  wild columbine
    •  Canada columbine
    •  American columbine
    •  meetinghouses
    •  rock-bells
    •  rock-lily
    •  jack-in-trousers
    •  cluckies
 
References:
Websites

http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=AQCA

http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/woodland/plants/wild_columbine.htm

http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Aquilegia+canadensis

http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/forb/aqucan/all.html

http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/go/464/

Page drafted by Ben Wheeler