I did not go looking for columbine. I thought the second week in April was too early for its scarlet blooms, but I found myself on the west side of San Juan Island and, scanning a rocky slope above the County Park, spied the ornate wildflower softly shimmering in the gravelly scree. Oh, red rain flower. Welcome back!
Red columbine is a stunning plant that can take your breath away – especially if you come upon it unexpectedly. Last year when I saw it in late May the wildflower’s presence was accompanied by the haunting refrain of a Swainson’s thrush, newly arrived from the south to partake in salmonberry’s first fruit. I haven’t heard the thrush yet but the familiar calls of a Pacific-slope flycatcher and orange-crowned warbler reminded me many other breeding birds have arrived.
Columbine is not a particularly common plant in the San Juans. In Wild Plants of the San Juan Islands, Atkinson and Sharpe consider it most common on Orcas Island where it “…grows on steep, moist, rocky slopes near Mt. Constitution’s summit …” I have seen it here on San Juan for over twenty-five years; it appears to be expanding its range at the margins of some of our forests and glades, along roadsides, up the mountain sides, and even in meadows. It blooms through late June and July – depending on elevation.
Aquilegia formosa is beguiling. In Latin, formosa means beauty and surely that is an understatement. The delicate, gently nodding flowers grow atop slender stems of two feet, or so. The floral design is a masterpiece of coral-red sepals and spurs, yellow throat, and an intriguing hanging cluster of honey glands (noted botanist and photographer Lewis J. Clark calls the pendulum “…a brush-like tuft of stamens and styles.”) that is irresistible to hummingbirds, sphinx moths and swallowtail butterflies.
The common name - columbiana – means “dove-like” and refers to Nature’s fine design of petals and spurs some consider resembling an assembly of doves.
In days gone by, the Haida People roamed these inland waters in large war canoes and warned their children not to pick the flamboyant buttercup with the five crimson spurs or it would surely rain; hence the name “red rain flower.”
I continued down West Side Road, parked near the lake, and wandered back up the way looking for more crimson buttercups. I found only two more plants in bloom. Yes, it was still early. I was heartened though to see there were remnant white fawn lilies and calypso orchids growing in the mossy outcrops and ledges by the road and in the forest. All too soon they would be gone for another year. Meantime, the sepia hollows promise more red columbine is on the way and its vibrant presence will bring cheer to the pollinators – and to wildflower lovers. It may be our mid-spring icon in the woods lifting our spirits and reminding us of the enduring role wildflowers play in the islands’ web of life and cultural history.
References: (1) Pojar and MacKinnon, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, p.180; (2) Atkinson and Sharpe, Wild Plants of the San Juan Islands, p.128; Clark, Lewis J., Wild Flowers of the Pacific Northwest from Alaska to Northern California, p.150.
San Juan Nature Notebook /Red Columbine. Text and photos copyright 2016 by Susan Vernon. Susan Vernon is the author of Rainshadow World – A Naturalist’s Year in the San Juan Islands.