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Notes from the Apothecary

Notes from the Apothecary: Columbine


The columbine, or Aquilegia, is a striking flower, with hooked spurs that resemble either eagle’s talons or the heads of doves gathered together. It’s in the same family as buttercups (Ranunculaceae), which while isn’t obvious in the shape of the flowers, becomes more apparent when you look at the hairy stems and the lobed leaf shapes. There are up to 70 species of columbines that we know about, with colours ranging from bright blue to deep red. Also known as Granny’s Bonnet, these fantastic flowers carry a wealth of folklore and magical associations.


The Kitchen Garden

Columbine are one of those plants that are mostly toxic except for one single part: the flower petals. Don’t ever be tempted to eat any other part of the plant. It will make you very ill! The flowers can be eaten and some say they are sweet, however people who are pregnant or breastfeeding mustn’t even eat the flowers.

One of the best reasons to cultivate columbines in your garden is the range of pollinators they attract. Bees and butterflies love columbines, and in places where they’re native, hummingbirds may get their beaks into the long spurs to reach the sweet nectar within.

Because columbines come in such a variety of colours, they’re also a bright and joyful addition to any flower garden.


The Apothecary

We already know that columbines are poisonous, so could they be used for medicine? Yes, like many plants that cause adverse effects, columbines have been used for medicine in various places throughout the ages and even still today.

The Cherokee people use Aquilegia canadensis for gynaecological care as well as for heart problems. Columbine is known to cause heart palpitations, so it actually makes sense that it could be used with care) in some heart conditions.

Other medicinal uses for columbine include:

    • Ulcer treatment
    • Inducing sweating
    • Reducing spasms
    • Head lice treatment
    • Treating tumors
    • Kidney tonic
    • Skin treatments e.g. treating poison ivy rash
    • Fever treatment
    • Easing headaches

Despite this wealth of uses across different cultures, we do not recommend you consume any type of columbine, particularly bearing in mind the adverse effects it can have on the heart.


The Witch’s Kitchen

Columbines have a wide range of magical uses across various American First Nations peoples. For the Pawnee, Meskwaki, Ponca, and Omaha people, columbine seeds may be used in a love charm. The Iroquois may use a compound containing aquilegia to detect witchcraft. The Meskwaki also use a decoction of leaves and roots to increase the power of persuasion at important meetings.

The Latin name Aquilegia means eagle, which, as we touched on earlier, references the talon-like appearance of the hooked parts of the flowers. Eagles have may powerful associations, including strength and freedom, but also the hunter and deadliness. In Greek mythology, Zeus’s eagle, Aetos Dios, was a messenger and also the eagle that destroyed the liver of Prometheus each time it regrew. An eagle was also sent to recover Hebe’s chalice of ambrosia when it was stolen by demons. The eagle fought and bled, the blood turning into rowan trees where it fell. If you use columbine to reinforce the image of the eagle in meditations or visualisations, consider all these various aspects and which apply to you or your situation.

The word columbine itself means “dove”, which is related to the appearance of the petals. When you look at a columbine flower that’s hanging down, take a look at just above where the petals connect to the stem. The ends of the petals look like the heads of doves, clustered together in a group. This is even more evident before the flowers open wide. The most pervasive association with doves in Western culture is that of peace. The biblical image of the dove carrying an olive leaf is so widely connected to peace, that “offering an olive branch” now means to try and patch things up after an argument or disagreement. Doves are also connected to Artemis, Astarte, and Ishtar. As well as being linked to fertility and procreation, the dove could have had ancient connections to the entire concept of deity.

The flower itself could have its own links to fertility, particularly as it self-seeds and when you have one, you’ll probably end up with many by the following year! In this sense, the plant is also linked to abundance and could be ideal for wealth magic.

Other magical uses include:

    • Dealing with jealousy
    • Encouraging courage in yourself for others
    • Increasing clarity
    • Symbolizing the element of air

Remember to wash your hands after handling columbines!


I Never Knew…

Columbines have helped scientists understand evolution better, particularly showing how some plant species adapt to particular pollinators including bees, hummingbirds, and moths, and how others thrive despite the lack of these adaptations.


*Images: Columbines in a can photo by Katrin Hauf on Unsplash

Purple columbine Photo by Ulrich Knoll on Unsplash



About the Author:

Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist and content creator. She’s a nature-based witch, obsessed with Irish and British Paganism and Folklore, plus she’s a massive plant nerd. She’s also a long-time Hekate devotee and a newbie Lokean. She works extensively with the UK Pagan Federation, including editing their bi-annual children’s magazine. Mabh is a passionate environmentalist and an advocate for inclusiveness and positive social transformation.

Mabh is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors,  Pagan Portals – Celtic Witchcraft: Modern Witchcraft Meets Celtic Ways, and most recently, Practically Pagan: An Alternative Guide to Planet Friendly Living. Search “Mabh Savage” on Spotify and @Mabherick on all socials.