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Aquilegia {Past and present Medicinal uses}

Updated on February 9, 2014

Aquilegia vulgaris



Aquilegia vulgaris {Columbine} belongs to the Order of plants known as the Ranunculales and placed in the family Ranunculaceae {buttercup family}.

It has long been a favourite garden species with attractive blooms and foliage. However, less known is the fact that it was once used in herbal medicine. Here we look at the species, with images and a description of the plant. Through historical notes from herbalists and physicians of days gone by we will review its medicinal qualities and uses. As always we commence this review with a description of our subject.

Billerder of Norden's Flora 1917-1927
Billerder of Norden's Flora 1917-1927

Description of Aquilegia vulgaris

The root of this species is tuberous, branched and fibrous , and of a whitish colour, it is perennial by nature. from the root rises up a cylindrical stem which attains the height of two to three feet. The stem is branched, leafy and slightly hairy.

The foliage is composed of radical leaves at the base which are divided into three rounded,crenated leaflets, and they are borne on long stalks. The stem leaves decrease in size towards the top of the stem so that the upper most are almost stalk-less, and are simply ternate, or three lobed. They are all deep green above and glaucos below.

The flowers are terminal and pendant and supported on long axillary stalks. The calyx {sepals etc} resemble the corolla {Petals etc}. It consists of five coloured, ovate,equal,spreading sepals, and alternative with them petals tubular,dilated upwards, their lower portion extended into a long nectareous spur, which is somewhat curved and obtuse at the end. The stamens number 30-40 with subulate filaments, the anthers somewhat heart shaped and erect.

The flower is well equipped for insect fertilization, for its well stocked spur, and the numerous stamens mature before the stigma's. The flower droops and when it opens the bunch of stamens are found lying to the lower side of it, with the exception of a few that have elevated themselves to occupy the center of the flower. As they mature in succession the remaining stamens attain the position and finally when the stamens have all shrivelled the stigmas are left in possession of the center.

Long tongued bees are the main pollinators, and they regard the stamens as a convenient landing stage from which they can push their long tongues into the petal spurs and extract the honey from the hollow at the very end. And when they withdraw their underside is covered with pollen which is rubbed against the stigma's , when they visit an older flower cross fertilization takes place. The common bumblebee can not reach the honey by this method but has learned to bite through the spur and to suck out the honey without earning it.

Following the flowers are the fruits {seed capsules}. They usually number five capsules or follicles, nearly cylindrical, straight, pointed, erect, one celled, one valved and many seeded. The seeds are oval, smooth , dark and shiny,and attached to both edges of each follicle.

The beautiful A.alpina

Originally appeared on Flickr
Originally appeared on Flickr | Source

Habitat and a little history

This species may be encountered in meadows, woods and coppices in the suitable districts of England, where it is thought to be a naturalized garden escape. The time of flowering is June and July.

The generic name Aquilegia is derived from the Latin aquilla-an eagle, in reference, it seems, to the spurs of the petals, which were thought to resemble the claws of that bird. The common English name Columbine derived from a word meaning a dove is also thought to allude to the spurs, or the bloom resembling a nest of doves.

The genus Aquilegia is not very numerous, but most of the species are very pretty, especially the Alpine columbine {pictured above}. It is said that goats and sometimes sheep will eat the plant but other animals tend to refuse it.

Many of the older poets refer to this flower. Brown in his Pastorals, names it while describing old floral customs long since discontinued and only known by the poet's mention.--

" So did the maidens with their various flowers,

Deck up the windows, and make neat their bowers.

The ruddy Piny with the lighter rose,

The monk's-hood with bugloss, and entwine,

The white, the blue, the flesh-like columbine.

With pinks, sweet williams;that far off the eye,

Could not the manner of their mixture spy;

Then with the flowers the most did prize,

On tufts of herbs or rushes would they frame

A dainty border round the shepherd's name,

or posies, make, so quaint, so apt,so rare,

As if the Muses only lived there."

Aqilegia was a well known flower all over Europe, and in most of north America. Bryant speaks of it in American woods where " The columbine, in purple drest, nods o're the ground birds hidden nest"

One of the old names Perfetto Amore { true Love} seems to imply that this is a favourite flower. Drayton introduces it in one of his poems---

" Make her a goodly chaplet of azured columbine

And wreath about her coronet with sweeted eglantine,

bedeck our beta all with lilies,

And the dainte daffadillies,

With roses damaske, white and red, and fairest flower-de-lice,

With cowslips of Jerusalem, and cloves of paradise"

Aquilegia canadensis


Aquilegia pubescens

This species is endemic to California {Sierra Columbine}
This species is endemic to California {Sierra Columbine} | Source

Qualities and medicinal uses.

The odour of the fresh plant is weak, and the taste a little bitter and nauseous. The bruised seeds are somewhat mucilaginous, with a slight bitterness. The odour is strong, and so tenacious, that it is difficult to clean the mortar that is used to pound them.

The syrup according to archaic herbals, prepared with the flowers was said to be bitter taste of acids and alkalies than that of the . Geoffroy affirms, the seeds contain a larger quantity of oil and salt. With regard to the poisonous effect of this plant Linnaeus { Flora Suecica page 187 }, states that children have lost their lives by taking an overdose, administered as a medicine by 'ignorant persons'. It certainly belongs to the suspicious order of plants, most of the members of which are poisonous. {see my hub Monkshood past and present medicinal uses}.

MEDICINAL USES> Despite the fact they belong to the Ranunculaceae, Aquilegia have been much extolled in days gone by. The root, the leaves, the seeds and the flowers were esteemed aperitive,diuretic, diaphoretic and antiscorbutic.

One writer Puali, states a dramatic claim, that children attacked with measels and small pox have been recovered as if from the dead, by taking half a drachm of the seeds in powder. Tragus and Matthiolus ordered that pulverized seeds should be administered in the dose of a drachm mixed with saffron, to be taken in a glass of wine, as a remedy for jaundice. Camerarius, that in Spain they used the root in calculous and gravelly disorders. Clusius, recommended it in difficult labour, and Ettmuller against scurvy. Tournefort { Hist.des Plantes de paris volume 2 page 264}, lauded a tincture of the flowers made with spirit of wine, and mixed with equal parts of tincture of lac and mastic, as very efficacious in ulcerations of the mouth and scorbutic affections of the gums.

Eysel { Diss,de Aquilegia antiscorbuticorum asylo 1716} considers the expressed juice inferior to no other remedy as an antiscorbutic, he likewise extols it in haemmorrhages of the uterus, and hectic perspirations arising from a scorbutic taint. Ray {Hist.Plant tom 1 page 707} states that a decoction of the leaves makes an excellent gargle in inflammation of the throat and trachea.

However, despite all these claims by past writers,Aquilegia had fell out of favour by the majority of herbalists by the 1800's and few recommended it as a medicine, but some recommended it as a subjoin formula for the preparation of syrup. records show that syrup of Columbine was prepared in the following manner----

Take of fresh flowers of Columbine----two pounds

Boiling water-------------------------------Four pounds

After digesting them for ten hours, strain the liquor; then repeat the process twice, with a like quantity of fresh flowers. Add to the third straining ,white sugar, four pounds. Clarify and boil gently to the consistency of a syrup, in order to obtain a fine blue colour, it is necessary that the petals be not bruised, and that the infusion be not protracted too .

The above paragraphs are for historical information and not meant to be a guide to home made preparations.

Aquilegia X maruyamanna

Garden variety
Garden variety | Source

Garden varieties

The species under review is an old inhabitant of gardens, and by the 1800's, there were many varieties with violet, purple, red, flesh coloured and white flowers. However, at the time despite several attempts none could be produced with flowers of a yellow tint.

Most of the genus are short lived perennials and they tend to be clump forming. Many are recommended for rockeries.

Aquilegia fragrans


Aquilegia 'Nora barlow'



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    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, they are beautiful plants and I am glad to have added to your knowledge,as you add to mine about American birds. Thank you for the visit. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I have known the columbine(canadensis), both in Maine and here in Oklahoma. It is a plant of wonder to me, yet I was never aware of the old herbalists' uses.

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Thank you for sharing and pinterest it is much appreciated as were your kind comments, best wishes to you.

      DDE, thank you too my friend for your usual encouraging and appreciated comments, and for your vote up. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Aquilegia is a different plant with such a beautiful flower. Knowledge is power and I would not let my chance pass by without stopping by here and learning more about another plant from you. Your hubs are interesting, useful and most helpful to all readers. Voted up!

    • thumbi7 profile image

      JR Krishna 4 years ago from India

      Beautiful pictures. Shared it in pinterest