Nature’s Origami

Nature’s Origami
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One of the first spring flowers to bloom in my native plant garden are the intricately formed Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. Also known as Eastern red columbine or Wild red columbine, this flower presents itself proudly as an elaborate assembly of yellow petals, stamens, and pistils surrounded by upturned, red petals and spurs. The five, outer, red petals extend backward to form tubular, nectar-filled spurs that collectively resemble an origami fortune-teller game or cluster of five doves perched around a fountain. In fact, the flower’s common name comes from the Latin word, columbinus, which means “dove-like.” The relatively large, one and a half inch long dove-like flowers, presented as individuals or in groups of 2 to 3, are supported by slender, round, green to reddish green, glabrous stems. Along its stems, past the basal leaves, the mature plant produces long petioles with alternate, ternately compound leaflets. Obovate in shape, the 3-inch long and 2 inch wide, glabrous leaflet is further divided into round-toothed, secondary lobes. This 1 to 3 foot tall, sparingly branched, native plant has short fibrous root system, and as a result, this hardy perennial is short-lived, lasting three to five years. However, all is not lost, since Columbine prodigiously regenerates itself by self-seeding!

Self-seeding Columbine

In Illinois, Columbine flowers from early May to mid June. Two weeks after the flowers have emerged they will go to seed. Once ripened, the seed dispersed by man or nature is easily propagated. Propagation occurs via wind-driven self-seeding or by a purposeful gardener who has collected and stored the fruit for later, fall planting. Hand sown seeds should be scattered on the soil’s surface and lightly tamped. Cold-moist stratification treatment is required for over-wintered seeds stored for spring planting. Summer seeds left to self-seed will germinate less profusely than those sown by hand and pressed into the soil. All seedlings, whether they were self-sown or scattered by man, usually flower the second year following germination.

A prolific progenitor, Columbine, specifically genus Aquilegia, made its way into North America via the Bering land bridge that connected the continents of Asia and North America during the Pleistocene period some 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, and rapidly spread throughout Alaska and the North American continent. As the columbines moved across the continent, new species evolved in response to their new environment and pollinators. These new Columbine species developed characteristics that were similar to their original features, yet different. The evolved columbines produced different shaped and colored flowers, as well as different positions for presenting their flowers, sepals, and spurs than their ancestors. Overtime, the Columbine’s genes changed. These new genes, responsible for both the initial evolution of nectar spurs and subsequent plant diversification, helped the plants physically adapt and respond to their new pollinators. The plant’s structure evolved to control which pollinators could facilitate its reproductive success. Pollination was accomplished only by insects or birds that possessed an appendage long enough to retrieve the nectar from the spur. Nectar retrieval resulted in an insect’s or bird’s body becoming pollen covered from the flower’s anthers positioned above the spurs. Pollen transferred from one Columbine plant to another plant occurred to complete the cross-pollination process. Today, in their current habitats, the Red columbine’s pollinators of choice are the Columbine Duskywing, Ruby-throated hummingbirds, Short-tongued halictid bees, and butterflies, as well as the Boer and Hawk moths.

Columbine’s Spurs

Eastern red columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, is usually found in habitats with light shade to partial sun, moist to dry drainage conditions, and loamy, rocky, or slightly sandy soil. Once it becomes established, a mature plant can tolerate full sun as long as the air temperature does not exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Rocky open woodlands, wooded slopes, sandy savannas, sparsely wooded stream bluffs, shaded limestone cliffs, and glades, fens, bogs, logged woodland clearings, and thickets along railroad tracks are the preferred environment for Columbines. Current geographical distribution of Aquilegia canadensis is from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, south to northern Florida, western Oklahoma, and eastern Texas. Other columbine species in this genus occur in the Western states. This flora is native to eastern and central North America, an endangered species in Florida, and the only species native to Illinois.

Each year, the origami shaped columbines herald in the coming of the spring wildflower season. Whether the Red columbine resemble a cluster of five peace-filled doves or an origami fortune-teller game, one thing is for certain, they represent nature’s ability to adapt. Moreover, change is something we hope can facilitate survival in a somewhat inhospitable world.

Intricacy of Evolution

Related articles

Resources

Anderson, J. “Aquilegia canadensis L.: red columbine.” Plants Profile, Natural Resources Conservation service, United States Department of Agriculture. 2002. Web. 1 Jun. 2012.

“Aquilegia Express: Columbines Natural History.” Celebrating Wildflowers, U.S. Forest Service. 5 Mar. 2012.Web. 10 Jun. 2012.

“Aquilegia Express: The Columbine Flower.” Celebrating Wildflowers, U.S. Forest Service. 5 Mar. 2012.Web. 10 Jun. 2012.

Aquilegia canadensis L.” Native Plant Database, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, The University of Texas at Austin. 8 Sept. 2010. Web. 1 Jun. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Wild Columbine.” Woodland Wildflowers of Illinois.  2004. Web. 12 Jun. 2012.

Kramer, Elena and Hodges, Scott A. “Dramatic Diversity of Columbine Flowers Explained By a Simple Change in Cell Shape.” Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. 15 Nov. 2011. Web. 11 Jun. 2012.

Massey, Jimmy R. and Murphy, James C. “Leaf Parts.” Vascular Plant Systematics. 1996. Web. 15 Jun. 2012.

Rook, E.S. “Aquilegia canadensis.” Flora, Fauna, Earth, and Sky: The Natural History of the Northwoods, 26 Feb. 2004. Web 11 Jun. 2012.

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1 Comment

  1. Great article. We have seen them this spring growing along the roadsides in Connecticut, out of a rock outcrop along the Lower Susquehanna River at Shenks Ferry, and in our garden where we have been cultivating them, mostly from the seeds of a few specimens we prchased at a local native plant nursery. We have seen them in the Florida panhandle, growing wild on a limestone outcrop as well.
    As a garden specimen, the straight species is the best, and watching the sun light up the red lanterns in our garden is a fantastic sight.
    Thanks for your thorough article.

    Reply

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