Aquilegia vulgaris

Buttercup Family [Ranunculaceae]

month8may month8jun month8june month8jul month8july

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. The flowers have 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 pale-green stamens bearing creamy anthers at the tips. Younger ones are developing in the central part of the bunch. The more mature anthers bend out of the way to gain extra room for visiting pollinators.

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.

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

9th June 2004, Deepdale, Derbyshire. Photo: © RWD
Probably a native white variety. The topmost flower is dropping its petals and erecting itself in preparation for the seeding stages.

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, which is no longer facing groundwards. The smaller ones are younger.

23rd May 2011, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
The 5 green seed pods still have their styles attached but their stigmas have withered, are also 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.

13th July 2011, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
5 weeks later... More pods have gone fawn-coloured; the green ones have only lately shed their petals. There are short bracts much lower down the petioles (flowering stems) and some larger ones on the upper part of the main forks of the stems.

13th July 2011, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
5 weeks later... The pods have short hairs and prominent curved veins. A stray, now brown, anther has got caught on the hairs on the petiole. Style still attached.

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

Nor to be confused with: Aqualegia should not be confused with Aquaregia, a strong acid!

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.

  Aquilegia vulgaris  ⇐ Global Aspect ⇒ Ranunculaceae  

 family8Buttercup family8Ranunculaceae
 BSBI maps


Aquilegia vulgaris

Buttercup Family [Ranunculaceae]

WildFlowerFinder Homepage