White Columbine
Though mine eyes have the beauty
Of the lilies & the glow
Of the scarlet Flanders poppies
Nodding gravely row by row,
There's a flower in my homeland
That the angels might entwine
In their hair to give the lustre,
Colorado's columbine.

Though the sun sheds golden glory
O'er the far flung hills at dawn,
From a world azure & silver
Are your lovely colours drawn
From the great white peaks that tower
And the glacial lakes below;
From the deep blue sky above you
& the pearly clouds aglow.

Sweet columbine, sweet columbine
Beneath the aspen & the pine
You seem a gift from heav'n above;
How fair you blow, like sky & snow,
The spirit of the land I love,
The flower of the State of mine,
Sweet columbine, sweet columbine.

-lyric by Edgar MacMechen,

White Rocky Mountain
or Colorado Columbine


Aquilegia coerulea (very frequently mispelled caerulea) was adopted as the state flower of Colorado in 1899. Never an exceedingly common wildflower, its beauty & popularity caused it to become endangered through much of its range, either from being dug up & transported to private gardens, or from having the flowers picked before they could re-seed.

So in 1925 the Colorado General Assembly made it illegal to dig plants from the wild or molest the plant in any way. Fortunately it has numerous domesticated strains obtainable in the garden trade.

It has lavender, blue, & white forms. The basic "lavender & white" is C. coerulea variant coerulea. The White Colorado or Rocky Mountain Columbine is properly A. coerulea variant ochroleuca, but sometimes given as variant albiflora & occasionally sold as though its cultivar name is 'Albiflora.' It has a much larger than average bloom of purest ivory, with pale gold stigma.

The white was first described in 1864 by Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865), first director of the Royal Gardens at Kew.

White Rocky Mountain Columbine is native to Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada & Utah, not found quite as far south as are blue or lavender forms. Ours has shorter spurs than seen on most strains of the white variant. It is possibly the cultivar 'White Dove,' & has a bit of A. vulgaris in its genes, since domestic strains are rarely unhybridized.

A real species form of A. coerulea will turn its flowers partially upward to face the sun, but hybrids frequently hang their flowers downward or have a much reduced upward tilt.

It can be grown in zones 3 through 8. It is not fussy about soil pH but prefers a humusy acidic soil. It likes best dappled shade & persistent moisture. As a mountain species found at five to nine thousand foot elevations, it can be delicate if overheated at sea-level, & needs a cool area in the garden. It is a realtively short-lived perennial so it can be a good idea to save seed to re-start the plant in coldframes or unheated greenhouse.

The spurs contain nectar much loved by butterflies which uncoil their long tongues to reach to the very bottom of each spur. The blooms also make a sweet addition to salads, just as do nasturtiums.

The common name Columbine is from the Latin meaning "Like a Dove." The association of columbines with doves, & doves with the Holy Ghost of Christian faith, has lent them to be planted in manasteries, church gardens, & bible gardens throughout the world. White forms in particular represent the Holy Ghost in Her purity, & the sentiment that this divine presence is a "Her" is very ancient among Christian gnostics & Eastern Orthodoxy that identifies the Holy Ghost as the bride of God, or Sophia, a personification of Wisdom.

This notion of a Mother in the Christian trinity which has the form of a shining white dove long predates Christianity, as white doves were sacred to Aphrodite & Cybele & many similar Mother Goddesses of the ancient Near East & Mediterranean regions. En-shushinak, the Great Mother of ancient Persia, had the form of a white dove.

Curiously the genus name Aquilegia is likewise a bird-reference, but to the Eagle, because the flowers' spurs look like eagle talons. In continuance of the religious symbolism, the nurturing Dove & the huntress Falcon represented a Goddess of Life & of Death.

And as mystically inclined Christians thought of the Dove as the Divine Presence & Bride of God, so too in Judaic mysticism was the Eagle as well as the Dove a manifestation of the Divine Presence or Shekhinah, that feminine attribute of God whose wings form the canopy of heaven, & upon whose wings prophets ride when they "mount up with wings like eagles" [Isaiah 40:31] for the sake of visionary encounters.

This is this echo of the ancient Mother Goddess remade in Jewish imagination as the Shekhinah who said, "I bore you on eagles' wings & brought you to myself" [Exodus 19:4], the same Eagle-mother/Dove-mother whom John the Evangelist envisioned: "To the woman were given two wings of a great eagle" [Revelations 12:14].

Among mystics of all faiths the columbine has special significance in symbolizing simultaneously the loving motherliness of the Dove & the protective fierceness of the Eagle, the secret Oneness of the only seeming duality of Life/Death, Peace/Warfare, Good/Evil. And at the very least, poetic thoughts of the Divine are highly appropriate for garden meditations.

Continue to:
Aquilegia formosa, western columbine


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