Aquilegia vulgaris

Buttercup Family [Ranunculaceae]

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5 spurs

27th May 2005, Chinley, Derbyshire. Photo: © RWD
Growing up to a metre tall, it is popular in gardens, this particular sample above being a cultivated garden variety for it is not the deep blue of most wild varieties (but some wild varieties can be purple, pink or white).

13th May 2011, High Park Wood, Whitbarrow, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
A deep blue native variety, which have five very hooked spurs at the top. Right at the tip of these are the nectarines which secrete nectar internally down the tubes.

13th May 2011, High Park Wood, Whitbarrow, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
The flowers droop downwards on a stalk curved over at the top. The five outer sepals may have green tinges and look like petals (petaloid). The true petals also number five and have a hooked spur projecting above and over the flower.

13th May 2011, High Park Wood, Whitbarrow, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
These five inner petals are trumpet shaped, narrowing down to the tubular hooked spurs at the top. From a central pedestal numerous white stamens bearing creamy anthers at the tips hang down.

13th May 2011, High Park Wood, Whitbarrow, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
From above the five sepals spread out whilst the five petals with their tubular hooks point earthwards. Flower dangles from a single central stem.

13th May 2011, High Park Wood, Whitbarrow, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
The five openings of the trumpet-shaped petals can here be clearly seen. Each opening bears a lip (or petal).

13th May 2011, High Park Wood, Whitbarrow, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
The leaves are un-mistakable, being trefoil in pattern, with the three leaflets each having several asymmetrical and well-rounded lobes. The leaves of Greater Celandine have a certain similarity. Stems hairy.

13th May 2011, High Park Wood, Whitbarrow, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
The main stem usually branches and at the branches are three narrow lanceolate leaves set to point at the corners of an isosceles triangle. Stems have short hairs.

16th April 2008, Maiden Castle, Shropshire. Photo: © RWD
The leaves of a probably cultivated variety.

Stair, Borrowdale, Cumbria. Photo: © RWD
Light blue and deep purple garden varieties; the leaves are slightly wider.

28th May 2003, Cromford, Derbyshire. Photo: © RWD
Probably an escaped purple garden variety.

9th June 2004, Deepdale, Derbyshire. Photo: © RWD
Probably a native white variety.

12th June 2008, Derbyshire. Photo: © RWD
A probable garden variety (the five spurs are not hooked enough to be of the native variety).

23rd May 2011, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
After flowering the flower stem straightens up to present the five growing seed pods standing upright atop a pedestal.

23rd May 2011, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
Seed pods are hairy and contain several seeds each. Eventually they will turn brown when ripe. They are reminiscent of the tectarines in several Hellebores, such as Black Hellebore.

Not to be confused with : Pyrenean Columbine () which is smaller and related to Columbine, but only found in very few locations in the UK.

Some similarities to : Monk's-hood in that the flower is deep blue and deeply convoluted in form.

Uniquely identifiable characteristics

Distinguishing Feature :

The flowers themselves have been eaten by native Americans as a very sweet condiment, but are reported to be poisonous if eaten in quantity.

Columbine inhabits woods, fens and damp limy grassland which is where the Whitbarrow sample was located above. It is much grown in gardens, and much more likely to be found growing in a garden than in the wild. Garden varieties are cultivated and can come in many differing colours, whereas native ones are mainly deep blue, but purple, pink and white varieties do exist in the wild. It readily escapes from gardens into the wild, but garden varieties generally have spurs that are more straight and not hooked over the top as much.

Cultivated hybrid varieties of Columbine grown in gardens are very fertile and can escape into the wild where they also cross-breed with our native variety Aquilegia vulgaris. Such successive cross breeding can eventually result in the product being genetically indistinguishable from our native variety, just like the way Spanish Blubell (Hyacinthoides × massartiana) can cross-breed with our native English Bluebell and the hybrids continually cross-breed amongst themselves and English Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) until eventually the product is identical in all respects to English Bluebell. Indeed; it IS an English Bluebell, but one which is not 'native'.


Despite being in the same family (Buttercup) as Monk's-hood and having a similarly convoluted flower which is also deep blue in colour, Columbine does not possess the aconitine poisons of Monk's-hood. It does, however, possess other poisons, cyanogenic glycosides being some. It also contains the glycosidic flavone IsoCytisoside which exhibits antimicrobial activity. Aquilegine is also said to be a component, but your Author can find no reference to a secondary metabolite by this name. The toxins are most concentrated in the roots and seeds and can be fatal, affecting the heart; these toxins will probably be the glycosides of Arctogenin derivatives called Aquilegiosides, namely Aquilegioside G, Aquilegioside J and Aquilegioside C, which are all sapogenins.

Four novel Cyanogenic Glycosides have also been reportedly found in Columbine.


Three novel steroidal glycosides of the cycloartane type (all of which are also sapogenins) have been found in Aquelegia, Aquilegiosides G, J and C, each with three glycosides, mostly all glucose except for Aquilegioside J which has but two of glucose and one of arabinose. Your Author assumes that all are toxic affecting the heart. The seeds and roots are especially poisonous, containing several of these cardiogenic toxins, which can cause heart palpitations and severe gastroenteritis if consumed.

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Aquilegia vulgaris

Buttercup Family [Ranunculaceae]

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