In November 1990, my best friend Robert Joseph Miller’s life was cut short by AIDS. Just after Christmas that same year, I helped Robert’s mother go through his things. As I cleaned around his desk, I removed a print of Albrecht Dürer’s columbine from the wall. Robert had hung it there years before, like one would hang the picture of a saint or a movie star.
Dürer painted that simple yet detailed picture in 1526. It looks as though he had dug up a shovelful of German meadow and transported it intact to his studio for study. The columbine is nestled in grasses and buttercups. Its flowers rise above the other plants like dark violet birds—ravens—not the doves whose Latin name, columba, give us the word “columbine.”
Dürer’s dark flower is Aquilegia vulgaris, the European columbine. The widest ranging and most variable columbine, it is the proto-species for the genus. It can be found in every country in Europe from Scandinavia to Morocco. The USDA considers it naturalized in eastern North America and the state of Washington, too. Cultivated since the Middle Ages, there were already many named cultivars by the 17th century. Widespread sharing of seeds and the plant’s propensity for naturalizing has many European botanists questioning if it is actually native everywhere it is found.
More than 60 species of columbine are distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere, with the largest concentrations in two disparate locations: southern Europe and northern Mexico. Few species are found growing together naturally, with habitat preference usually being the separating factor. Yet all species within the genus will hybridize freely with each other, creating fertile and infertile hybrids.
Shortly after Robert’s death, I hung the Dürer columbine print over my own desk. I would look at it and think of him, and the love of art and plants we shared. I contemplated naming a columbine after him—a memorial of sorts, a way to keep him alive. What would it be? ‘Mr. Miller’? ‘R.J. Miller’? I settled on ‘Bobby Joe’, a name I teased him with when he wore cowboy boots and a calico western-cut shirt.
So I had a name, but no columbine.
I began very passively by taking mental notes of aberrant columbines in gardens I would visit. Many garden columbines are hybrids of Aquilegia vulgaris crossed with one or more of the numerous European species. Carrie Thomas, who held the National Collection of A. vulgaris and A. ×hybrida cultivars, rues the difficulty of keeping columbine cultivars true. “Named cultivars,” says Thomas, “have only a 10 to 20 percent chance of producing true offspring.” Many garden columbines are complex hybrids and contain recessive genes, so even deliberate cross-pollination cannot guarantee results.
Colorado plantsman Robert Nold, who wrote the most recent monograph on the genus, alerts us that most columbine seeds are not pure species anymore, even if they come labeled that way. The only way to ensure pure seed, he says, is to collect seed from isolated wild populations. I witnessed this myself when the dark-flowered European A. atrata I grew far from other columbines in a client’s garden produced seedlings that looked more like A. vulgaris than the plant I originally bought.
Ray Brown, columbine hybridizer at Plant World Botanical Garden in England, laments, “New Aquilegia come around quite rarely.” With the pros complaining about the difficulty of finding new columbines, I wondered if finding a columbine to name ‘Bobby Joe’ might not be as easy as I thought.
According to the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, a cultivar “may arise by deliberate hybridization or by accidental hybridization in cultivation.” About 15 years after Robert’s death I had decided it was probably time to take a more active approach to finding ‘Bobby Joe’. Still, I relied heavily on the accidental, collecting seeds mainly from garden forms of A. vulgaris, Dürer’s columbine.
Then I turned my attention to the columbines of western North America.
The genus, in general, has a propensity toward blue, violet, or even black flowers that are favored by bees and flies; American columbines, pollinated by hummingbirds, are predominantly yellow and red. The popular ‘McKana Giant’ hybrids are a cross of two American species: A. caerulea and A. chrysantha, getting their range of color from the first and long spurs from the second.
As I collected more and more columbines, both cultivars and species, I began to amass a lot of seedlings. So I tried to sell some at a plant sale. Of the 126 plants I had for sale, only three sold. But I heard the word “weedy” in regards to my progeny at least three times that much.
I must agree, they are weedy, as are many members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) to which they belong. But a little deadheading takes care of seeding about and actually prolongs the life of the short-lived columbine.
Thomas cautions, “Never label a columbine until it has actually flowered.” Still, last spring my procrastination turned into impatience and I labeled six seedlings ‘Bobby Joe’. I had collected the seed from the American cultivar ‘Tequila Sunrise’, which grew close to A. atrata and A. vulgaris ‘Black Barlow’, a potentially odd mixed parentage. Twenty-six years after Robert’s death, I still don’t know if I was looking for an oddity or a beauty to honor him.
What am I looking for?
Maybe I should have chosen an oak instead. What kind of memorial plant is the weedy, short-lived, and unreliable columbine?
Maybe what I am looking for is already happening in every garden and alpine meadow where I look for ‘Bobby Joe’. Has the quest for and not the finding of ‘Bobby Joe’ been what has actually kept my friend alive?
Is this search the memorial?
“The procrastinator,” says philosopher Costica Bradatan “is both contemplator and man of actions, which is the worst thing to be.” Still, I took a break from writing this and planted the six columbine seedlings named ‘Bobby Joe’ in our gravelly drive.