Lantern Flowers: Crimson (Western) Columbine

Learn about this outstanding Californian wildflower – from its evolutionary history to the best time to see it bloom.

Crimson columbine is native to California.

Its full native range extends up north to Alaska’s coast, and east into Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. It is also found in areas of the Southwest. They are absent in California’s Central Valley.

Columbines are hypothesized to have arrived to North America 10,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Scientists hypothesize that the columbine ancestor made its way from Central Asia to Alaska thousands of years ago by the the Bering land bridge that connected Asia to North America. Evidence of the columbine’s travels have been supported by DNA analyses of columbine species from around the world.

After its arrival in Alaska, the columbine ancestor begin to radiate out to other parts of North America. The evolution of North American species is hypothesized to be driven by pollinator specialization. For example, multiple species of red columbines have adapted red flowers (distinct from blue and yellow-flowered columbines found in other parts of the U.S.) and higher sugar contents in their nectar – an adaptation thought to meet the demands of their hummingbird pollinators.

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Crimson columbine at Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve.

The best time to see crimson columbine bloom is March – May.

The plant can be found in forest and meadow habitats where the soil is moist.

The outer, red parts of the flower are actually sepals. The “true” petals are the yellow parts on the inside of the flower. Overall, the entire flower is about 2 inches long.

Crimson columbine attracts pollinators, including hummingbirds.

These flowers are also relatively deer-proof, making them a great option to include in a California native plant garden. For more tips on how to cultivate crimson columbines in your garden, check out these tips from the Las Pilitas Nursery.

Cool facts about crimson columbine:

  • Its genus name, Aquilegia, is derived from the latin word aquila, meaning “eagle”. This name is thought to refer to its upright red sepals, which look like an eagle’s talons.
  • The flower’s common name, columbine, is derived from the latin word columba, meaning dove-like.
  • Crimson columbine is a perennial plant.

Resources to learn more: