The Meaning of the Flower Columbine

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The columbine flower is the state flower of Colorado.
Image Credit: Larisa Fedotova/iStock/GettyImages

The lovely columbines (​Aquilegia​ spp.), native to North America and Europe, thrive in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 9, depending on the species and cultivar. The columbine flower meaning varies according to the culture and flower color, from love to religion to betrayal by a lover or husband. Whatever the symbolism, the columbines are showy additions to spring and early summer woodland and cottage gardens.

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About Columbine Flowers

The botanical Latin names of columbine and a multitude of other plants were devised by Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, in the 18th century. The Latin name of the columbine genus, aquila (eagle in English), was chosen due to the resemblance of the five curled flower petals to an eagle's claw. Most of the original symbolism and meanings associated with columbine flowers began with the European species.

There are approximately 100 species of columbine flowers. The common European columbine (​Aquilegia vulgaris​), hardy in USDA zones 3 through 8, produces blue flowers. It cross-pollinates easily with other columbine species, producing white, pink, purple or wine-red single or double hybrids. Not all of the flowers produced by the hybrids feature the distinctive spurs found on the wild blue columbines.

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Many of the North American columbines, including ​Aquilegia canadensis​ and ​Aquilegia formosa​ feature red and yellow flowers, though ​Aquilegia micrantha​ is found in a variety of colors, including cream, yellow, pink, blue or multicolored. The small blossoms of the columbine are among the best cut flowers used in elegant bouquets and flower arrangements.

Columbine Flowers in Mythology

Columbine flowers and the Greek goddess Aphrodite, known as Venus by the Romans, are intertwined in ancient mythology. Modern treatises on Greek and Roman mythology associate Aphrodite with the dove or in Latin, columba, which became the common name of the columbine flower. The spur on the flower was associated with love and fertility, while the five petals' color and shape resemble five European doves in a circle.

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In Norse mythology, columbine is associated with Freya, the goddess of love, lust and fertility as well as war and death. The Celts, on the other hand, believed that the flowers opened portals or doorways into other worlds, perhaps due to hallucinations after ingesting the columbine seeds and roots.

Columbine Flowers in Art

During the medieval period and the Renaissance, the columbine was often associated with Christian symbolism, particularly in art. The leaves grow in groups of three leaflets, interpreted as the Holy Trinity of the Christian faith. In art, three columbine flowers symbolized hope, love and faith, while seven columbine plants were symbolic indicators of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude or courage, knowledge, piety, and fear or reverence of God.

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The Columbine in Literature

Shakespeare used columbine flowers in his plays "Loves' Labour Lost" and "Hamlet" to symbolize betrayal and adultery. It is likely that the columbines he wrote of were the blue flowers commonly found in England. Other playwrights and poets of the 16th and 17th centuries, including George Chapman and William Browne, also used columbines in their works to symbolize ingratitude and neglected love.

Columbine Flower Meaning

Most of the current flower symbolism originated in the Victorian era. The language of flowers incorporated both the flower species and its color to convey a variety of unspoken meanings, from love to rejection. In general, columbines convey a message of love and success. In addition, columbines were once used on Memorial Day to honor veterans and decorate their graves in New England.

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Red columbine symbolism includes love and passion as well as anxiety and trembling. Purple columbine is often used to indicate competitiveness or a resolve to win. Yellow columbines bring positive energy, including friendship and happiness. White columbines used in flower arrangements and wedding bouquets convey purity and innocence.

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