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What is Aquilegia?

Alex Paul
Alex Paul

Aquilegia is a genus of plant that contains around 70 different species. The plants are usually found in woodlands and are perennial, which means they live for more than two years. Most aquilegia plants are found in the northern hemisphere and have distinctive flowers that set them apart from other types of plant. Many aquilegia plants are important for wildlife such as caterpillars and moths.

Usually aquilegia plants are found in either woodland or meadows. There are some, however, that are known to survive in high altitude conditions in parts of the northern hemisphere. The genus of plant is sometimes known as columbine, which comes from the Latin word for dove. An example of an aquilegia plant is the dark columbine.

Caterpillars feed on aquilegia plants.
Caterpillars feed on aquilegia plants.

Aquilegia plants are perennial and propagate from a seed. This means that the plants live more than a single season in contrast to annual plants. Although in science a perennial plant can be any type including trees and shrubs, gardeners usually only refer to herbaceous plants that can survive winter as perennial. There can be a large amount of variation in the life cycle of different perennial plants, however, and the same can be said for different types of plants in the genus.

There are several species that the plants are closely related to. For example, baneberry plants are thought to be similar, as are wolfsbane plants. Wolfsbane plants produce toxins in a similar way to aquilegia.

The plants of the aquilegia genus play an important role in nature. For example, the plants are food for the caterpillars of certain types of moths and butterflies. Examples include the cabbage moth and mouse moth.

There are several types of this plant that are grown for show in gardens. For example, the European columbine is traditionally found in many northern hemisphere gardens. Many types of aquilegia are easy to cultivate and hence there are a large number of hybrid plants that have been developed from seeds.

Although the plants are rarely eaten today, they were once part of the diet of Native Americans. The plants contain certain toxins, but if eaten in very small quantities they are thought to be safe to consume. If, however, a person eats the roots or seeds then this can cause more severe problems as the toxins are highly concentrated in these areas of the plant. There is some evidence that Native Americans used some types of the plant for medicinal purposes.

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    • Caterpillars feed on aquilegia plants.
      By: epantha
      Caterpillars feed on aquilegia plants.