Wild Columbine

Aquilegia canadensis. “Our columbine is at all times and in all places one of the most exquisitely beautiful of flowers,” wrote naturalist John Burroughs more than a century ago. A popular native bird would agree. Many spring wildflowers have developed close relationships with insects, be they bees, butterflies, flies, or even ants. However, in its evolution, the Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) has mostly shunned insects for survival and, perhaps like no other eastern wildflower, has turned to a bird to pollinate its blossoms. Its color and unusual shape are exquisitely designed to attract and serve the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the only one of 18 North American hummingbird species that nests on the East Coast. Blooming at the same time “hummers” are just arriving from Central and South America, the Wild Columbine displays colors that attract hummingbirds and offers nectar that provides a much-needed energy boost. Red catches the bird’s eye, and the yellow opening and interior guide the bird into the flower and to the sweets.  Although some bees, wasps, and other insects cheat the system by nibbling through the nectar end of the top spur, only the largest, strongest, and longest-tongued insects, such as bumblebees, can draw sweets from the tube. And, of course, the hummingbird, whose long beak and ability to fly like an insect allow it to hover beneath the blossom and dip up for a sip. These downward facing tubular flowers have another advantage: They do not need to close to protect their nectar and pollen from the rain, which just rolls down their backs. A surprise to many, Wild Columbine is a member of the Buttercup family, whose most common members bear no resemblance.

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