Red columbine is a native wildflower found throughout the United States. A member of the large Ranunculaceae, or buttercup, family, its cousins include aconite, clematis, delphinium, larkspur, coral bells and hellebore. In the East, Aquilegia canadensis flourishes from Nova Scotia to Florida. Western red columbine is a very similar variety, Aquilegia formosa. Both share the nodding heads, red petals and yellow sepals that make columbine such an attractive addition to a late spring garden. Related varieties in Rocky Mountain states often have blue or yellow petals instead of red.
Wild red columbine is usually found in woodlands or alpine meadows. Growing to a height of 1 to 2 feet tall, columbine can be identified in early spring by its clusters of flat, divided leaves with scalloped edges. Young leaves are often grayish or bluish green. Wild columbine grows best in filtered sunlight and prefers moist humus soil but is sufficiently drought-tolerant to appear in rocky areas. Plants will appear in rock crevices and alpine areas where soil is thin. Because it is spread by seeds, plants will sometimes appear in groups, with new generations clustered close to parent plants. Flowers emerge on long flexible stems and usually bloom between April and June. Foliage then yellows and dies back. The shape of its leaves forms one basis for wild columbine's designation as a "crowfoot" plant.
Native and pioneer medical uses may have been based on the soothing properties of its seeds and roots. According to Easy Wildflowers, columbine seed and root have been used to treat rashes, fever and stomach problems, though that information is strictly anecdotal. Accounts of old and recent medical uses of the Ranunculaceae family are varied. One member is popularly called bugbane and another's name, cimefugia, translates as "bedbug-repeller." Renewed interest in natural medicines has stimulated exploration of how black cohosh may address problems in menstruation and menopause. There appears to be no systematic scientific summary of the exact medical properties of wild columbine and its cousins.
Wild red columbine spreads naturally through seeds. Digestion and excretion by birds accounts for its wide spread and occasionally surprising locations. In the home garden, wild columbine can also be propagated by seed or root division. Newly established plants will leaf out during their first year of growth but do not ordinarily bloom until the second year.
When finding red columbine in the wild, please leave it there. Root systems are relatively short-lived, and removing whole plants or all visible seeds can affect future growth and spread. Removing wild plants is illegal in national and state parks and nature reserves. Land development has a strong impact on the growth of wild red columbine and many other native wildflowers. The USDA Plant Database notes that wild red columbine has become an endangered plant in Florida. Seek out commercially available seeds or seedlings of this and other native plants.
Wild Columbine in Your Garden
Include wild red columbine in any native garden, both for its early color and its attraction for hummingbirds and several kinds of bees. Like bleeding heart, foliage helps to cover the necessary but unattractive remainders of early spring bulb foliage. Select a planting spot with filtered or partial sun; wild columbine can tolerate moderate but not deep shade. Provide well-drained soil and include spring-planted seeds in your regular watering schedule. At the end of the blooming season, watch for seed pods and harvest seeds when they have become hard and dark. Plant them right away or store them in a cool dry place to share or plant at a future location. Stored seeds will need to be cold-stratified or otherwise winterized before spring planting.