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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Aquilegia, Edible wild plants, Poisonous plants, Edible landscaping

I've been reading up on permaculture and exploring the edibility of common ornamental plants. Several books I've looked at suggest that columbine flowers (Aquilegia canadensis and Aquilegia vulgaris, specifically) are edible. I have my doubts, since columbine is in the family Ranunculaceae, which I would generally consider poisonous. What do you think?


I think you are right to question your sources. Although some species of Aquilegia have ethnobotanical uses as food, you should still proceed with caution. I found information about edible and medicinal uses of Aquilegia formosa. Daniel Moerman's Native American Food Plants, Timber Press, 2010, mentions that the Miwok boiled and ate the early spring greens, and that children of the Hanaksiala tribe sucked nectar from the flowers. In her book Ethnobotany of Western Washington (University of Washington, 1979), Erna Gunther mentions medicinal and edible uses of this species of columbine. The Quileute tribe used the sap to aid in healing wounds, and Chehalis children sucked "honey out of the flowers." However, The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms by Nancy Turner and Patrick von Aderkas (Timber Press, 2009) lists Aquilegia species as toxic:
"Most [members of the Ranunculaceae] contain irritant protoanemonins; columbines contain cyanogenic glycosides."

Columbine is included in University of Vermont Extension's list of "Potentially Harmful Perennials." St. Olaf College's page on wild columbine points out a common confusion between the blossoms of honeysuckle and columbine:
"Young children often mistake Columbine for Honeysuckle, pulling off the flowers and biting the spurs in search of nectar. Though no official records of toxicity have been reported for Columbine, it belongs to a family which contains other toxic species. Caution is advised."

The Plants for a Future database of edible and medicinal plants lists a number of species of columbine. Here is their page on Aquilegia canadensis. I don't find myself convinced by the statement that "the flowers are probably perfectly safe to eat." The entry for Aquilegia vulgaris says that the flowers are "rich in nectar, they are sweet and delightful, they make a very attractive addition to mixed salads and can also be used as a thirst-quenching munch in the garden. The flowers are also used as a tea substitute." It is worth looking at the sources cited at the end of this entry, to decide if you feel they are trustworthy. To summarize, when in doubt, don't eat the columbines (or any other plant whose edibility is debatable)!

Date 2017-08-15
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Garden Tip

Keywords: Vegetable gardening, Nuts, Fruit--Care and maintenance, Edible landscaping

Here is a short list of good books for both the arm-chair kitchen gardener and for those who like to get their hands dirty:

  • The New Kitchen Garden by Anna Pavord (Dorling Kindersley, $29.95) has lots of photos and diagrams with well organized, concise text.
  • Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference by Elizabeth Schneider (William Morrow, $60.00) has "500 recipes and 275 photographs" focusing on the history of vegetables and how to use them in the kitchen. It has no growing information, however.
  • The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy (Sierra Club Books, $25.00) introduces the idea of planting fruits and vegetables all around the garden.
  • Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally by Robert Kourik (Metamorphic Press, available used online and at the Miller Library) is a classic resource thick with practical details on everything from energy-conserving landscaping and soil preparation to drip irrigation for fruit trees.
  • How to Grow More Vegetables: And Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine by John Jeavons (Ten Speed Press, $17.95) is an old classic which has just been revised and reissued.
  • The Cook and the Gardener: a Year of Recipes and Writings from the French Country-side by Amanda Hesser (W.W. Norton, $32.50) is a delightful book divided into seasons with diary-like entries about living, gardening and cooking on a French farm.

Date: 2007-04-03
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Sunset Western Garden Book of Edibles by Sunset Publishing, 2010

Reviewed by: Brian Thompson on 2010-10-01

bookFor an encyclopedic approach to vegetable gardening, consider the Sunset Western Garden Book of Edibles. Like most Sunset books, this encompasses the entire west in its scope, so ignore the entry on macadamia nuts, but with the fine tuning that the Sunset zones allow, you can zero in on what will grow for you, including fruits, nuts, berries, and herbs.

Excerpted from the Fall 2010 Arboretum Bulletin.

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May 31 2018 13:14:08