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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Prairie Spotlight: Rocky Mountain Blue Columbine

Rocky Mountain Blue Columbine (Aquilegia saximontana)

Where to start describing this beautiful gem of the mountains? Deeper blue than Colorado blue columbine, the slightly smaller blooms are held proudly above petit, dark green leaves.

The name saximontana directly translates from the Latin to Rocky Mountain (saxum = rock; montanus = mountain). True—this plant is found nowhere else; it is, in fact, restricted to the high mountains of central Colorado, reaching as far north as Larimer County, our neighbor to the south.

Perhaps a bit ironically, Colorado blue columbine grows all over the Rocky Mountains, from Arizona to Montana.

It's in the Spurs

Only four of the 21 North American species of columbine have hooked spurs like this one, and we have two of them in Wyoming.

Laramie columbine (A. laramiensis; also on the Berry Prairie, but not yet in bloom - shown in graphic below) has very pale blue to white flowers, with hooked spurs. Like Rocky Mountain blue columbine, it has a very limited distribution—the central spine of the Laramie Range.

(Our other hook-spurred species is smallflower columbine (A. brevistyla). It, too, is rare here, though abundant in Alaska and northern Canada.)

Petals or Sepals?

Columbines don’t have as many petals as you might think—half of what you see aren’t petals at all, but sepals. Sepals make up the outermost whorl of a flower, and they are typically green and not very interesting.

In columbines and many of their relatives, the sepals are as showy as (or showier than) the petals. On Rocky Mountain blue columbine, the outer round of deep blue “petals” are the sepals. The true petals grade from the deep blue of the spurs to almost white at their tips.

Pollinator Love

Who, besides humans, is attracted to the spurs? Pollinators, of course! The spurs have nectaries at their bases, forcing long-tongued hawk and sphinx moths to reach far in, coating their faces with pollen to distribute as they speed from flower to another.


So, not only are columbines interesting and beautiful by themselves, they attract other interesting species, which bring other interesting species, and interesting things happen, and …

Written by Dorothy Tuthill, UW Biodiversity Institute

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