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Aquilegia atrata, columbine
This easy to grow, early flowering plant may have had a significant role in terminating unwanted pregnancies.
Read more about Aquilegia atrata, columbine, in
these blog entries (most recent first);
Plants that may be especially harmful during pregnancy and childbirth
Meaning of the Name
From the Latin 'aquila', 'eagle', based on the view that the flowers look like an eagle swooping.
The Latin word atrata means blackened or dingy but it is hard to see why this name should be applied to this brightly flowering plant.
Common Names and Synonyms
columbine, granny's bonnet, lion’s herb, lady's shoes
How Poisonous, How Harmful?
Charles-Ernest Cornevin, in 'Des plantes vénéneuses et des empoisonnements qu’elles déterminent' (Poisonous Plants and the Poisonings they Cause), 1893, said that it contains aconitine, see Aconitum napellus. This seems to be the basis of its poisonous reputation because there is no scientific evidence for toxicity. It is not on the HTA list of potentially harmful plants and Liz Dauncey includes in her list of plants that are safe to grow for children.
There are no recorded specific cases of harm but it is said that, in the past, the wise woman in the village would use its, alleged but unproven, abortificant properties to provide a community service.
Seeds on Aquilegia atrata, columbine
Folklore and Facts
Lions eat the flowers in the spring to give them extra strength so rubbing the flowers in your hands will give you courage.
Perhaps because of its ability to produce miscarriage it is a symbol of folly and lost love.
It is said that the seeds were ground up in wine to produce the correct strength to cause a miscarriage but it is not known whether this was to to keep the remedy mysterious and, thus, the province of the village witch.
As an aside, it is interesting to see that in most folktales a woman who uses an herbal remedy which proves efficacious is referred to as being wise whereas a remedy which results in harm is almost always administered by a witch.