Fools and Folly, Part 1 – Columbine

Not nearly enough use is made of that airy flower, the modern columbine. Even our old native aquilegia vulgaris has its charm. Who could resist anything nicknamed Granny’s Bonnet or Doves-round-a-dish? I never have the heart to tear it out from wherever it has chosen to sow itself, though I know that it is little more than a weed and is a nuisance in that it hybridizes to the detriment of the choicer kinds. In fact, there are few flowers better disposed to hybridize amongst themselves, or, as one nurseryman puts it, ‘their morals leave much to be desired.’

V. Sackville-West’s Garden Book

durer aquilegia vulgarisI’ve mentioned before that I haven’t always been a gardener. It was something my parents did, and therefore boring. I progressed well into my twenties before I had a garden of my own, and that was just a tiny plot of vegetables behind a rented house. I didn’t look after it very well, and the returns were proportionate. During this phase, I was introduced to the columbine, not through a seed catalogue or a gardening book, but because I was shown a reproduction of “The Piece of Turf With The Columbine” by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528). There are only ten surviving examples of Durer’s portraits of plants, and this one is precisely drawn and true to the columbine as we know it today.

Columbines can be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, but they arrived in North American during the Pleistocene Epoch. (Apparently, Eons are divided into eras, which are in turn divided into periodsepochs and ages.) According to the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, “Columbines crossed into North America from Asia over the Bering land bridge that connected the two continents during that period. A progenitor columbine began to radiate rapidly out of Alaska and throughout the North American continent.” As the columbines spread, new species developed.

The name “Aquilegia” is derived from the Latin word for eagle (aquila), because the shape of the flower petals are said to resemble an eagle’s claw. The common name for the plant, “columbine”, is also derived from the Latin, from columba, “dove”, due to the resemblance of the inverted flower to five doves clustered together.

In the language of flowers, the meaning of columbine is “fool”. This symbolism likely stems from the flower’s resemblance to the pointed, bell-tipped cap worn by jesters, or fools.

“Foolscap”, on the other hand, is a type of paper. It is called foolscap because, in the 18th century, folio-sized paper had the watermark of a fool’s cap on it. (Wikipedia)

"Painted Columbines on a Harlequin Pattern", Drypoint & Mixed Media, 12" x 14"

“Painted Columbines on a Harlequin Pattern”, Drypoint & Mixed Media, 12″ x 14″


21 thoughts on “Fools and Folly, Part 1 – Columbine

  1. All these replies say exactly what I wanted to; really interesting post, you have a lovely writing style that is a pleasure to read, great pictures and I’m glad I know the origin of the name foolscap for paper now. I’m kicking myself for not following you sooner.


  2. What an interesting post – especially as I love columbines so much! I keep the special ones isolated so that they stay true to type. You can’t have enough of them, so airy and delicate!


    • It is always a pleasure to hear from you, Kayti, and a joy to think of you anticipating other versions of the print. Working in series as part of the printmaking process has opened up so many possibilities for me.


  3. Interesting and beautiful post as usual -you know I like the columbines too. I didn’t know about the relation with the jester’s cap, always something new to learn about.
    I like the contrast between the delicate aquilegia and the harlequin paper – strong & fragile sort of thing.


  4. A really interesting and informative post. I enjoyed reading it. Thank you. I never realised that was how foolscap got its name.
    I love the Columbines on a Harlequin Pattern.


    • I didn’t know about foolscap, either, but only discovered this fact as I was doing research for the blog post. It is one of the unanticipated benefits of blogging! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and the artwork.


    • Don’t tell anyone, but this was one of my “failed” prints, or at least it didn’t live up to my expectations. Drypoint is a printmaking process in which lines are carved into a plate which is then inked, covered with paper and passed through a press. Mixed media is shorthand for the marker ink and watercolour I used to “pretty up” the print. I’m glad you like it, as you will see other versions of it over the next couple of weeks!


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