Blooming now in the Catskills is the Wild Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. It is a denizen of the forest edge, of the woodland clearing. It is not the commonest wildflower but it is striking and conspicuous with its scarlet and yellow flowers, pictured here planted in a garden. This is the only species of Columbine native to New York State or to eastern North America, for that matter, but there are 22 other species of Aquilegia (the botanist’s name for Columbine), in North America west of the Mississippi River and around 50 species in the rest of the world, mostly in Europe, but with about 15 in China, Korea and Japan.
All Columbine flowers have nectar spurs. A nectar spur is a part of a flower that is structurally modified to hold nectar. It looks like a long tube issuing from the back of the flower. Other commonly known flowers with nectar spurs are orchids, violets, delphiniums, impatiens and nasturtiums.
There is a direct relationship between the type of pollinator and the length of the nectar spur. The flowers with the shortest spurs are designed to be pollinated preferentially bumblebees, while medium length spurs belong to flowers pollinated by large moths such as the sphinx moths and the hummingbird moths. The longest spurred flowers are designed to be pollinated by hummingbirds. Our own native columbine is one of the long-spurred species, and is preferentially pollinated by the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
The Columbines usually found in our gardens are predominantly derived from the European species Aquilegia vulgaris, but plant breeders have done much hybridizing with other species. Garden columbines are available in an incredible variety of colors and color combinations. The following photos demonstrate some of the assortment of colors and flower shapes now blooming in our gardens.