Wildlife Column with Prof Ian Rotherham
The Aquilegias are popular garden flowers with a variety of colours and long, almost orchid-like spurs and appendages.
These old-fashioned ‘cottage garden’ flowers are really rather pretty. However, they also have less showy varieties with shorter spurs and colours from pink to mauve; more like the truly ‘wild’ species.
These more ordinary forms are now escaping from gardens and appearing in wilder places like woodlands and waste areas; and they can cause confusion as people misidentify them as the wild ‘columbine’.
They range from white to pinks and purples, and escapees often have double flowers. The flower is also called Granny’s Bonnet or Granny’s Nightcap because of the shape of the flower-head.
The Latin name seems to be based on ‘Aquila’ – an eagle and this is maybe because of the way the spurs curl like an eagle’s sharp talons. The common name of ‘Columbine’ (from ‘Columba’ meaning ‘a dove’) is after the way that the bases of the petals look like five pigeons sat in a circle!
As a wild flower this is quite scarce and generally restricted to limestone woods or grasslands.
In times past, it was probably squeezed out of other areas by catastrophic acid rain from smoke stacks and other pollutants from industry and from domestic fires which turned base-rich soils into acidic ones.
Now however, the near wild forms are making a break back into the wider countryside so watch out near where you live.
In my patch, we find the wild ones on the Magnesian limestone that runs south to north in the east of the area, and in the Carboniferous limestone of the White Peak.
Look for the escapees along old railway-line trails and on wilder roadside verges. In these habitats the plants set seed but also local gardeners dump their rubbish and the plants freely naturalise.
The flowers pictured were in North Derbyshire’s Whitwell Wood and that is a good place to see the wild aquilegia. Seek it along the abundant rides and glades of this wonderful ancient wood. Here it thrives alongside bluebells, orchids and more.