Friday, 16 June 2017

The Courage of Columbines ~ What We Choose to Bring to Birth

Nathaniel Hughes, author of 'Weeds in the Heart' and teacher of Intuitive Herbalism, talks of there being many different types of herbalist; ceremonialist, healer, activist, folk/hedge~witch, wisdom~keeper, cunning woman and many more. I'm not sure which of these, if any, I am but I know that sometimes plants begin to tap at my edges asking to be heard. The cottage garden columbines are one of these. It was more than a decade ago that I dreamed that columbines, along with harebells, were one of 'my' flowers, and so for more than a decade I have neither forgotten, nor understood why. Dreams are like that, and the ways of the woven sacred can move excruciatingly slowly. That is why long dreaming winters and cups of tea were invented I imagine. It was only last week, when I went into a tiny church, St Mary Magdalene's on the North Downs not far from here, and turned their Book of Common Prayer to the 9th of June, that I discovered that I share my birthday with the Feast Day of Saint Columba, the abbot who founded the important abbey on the Isle of Iona in Scotland. Although I haven't yet found a particular connection between St Columba and the flower both their names have their roots in the Latin word for 'dove', with St Columba's original Irish Gaelic name 'Colm Cille' meaning 'church dove'. I love this tender thread that weaves my own story with the flower, the saint, and the Spirit. But, even before I discovered the thread, the columbines were calling, especially since I made friends with a little community of them in the churchyard of the 1,000 year old church where I spend much of my time.

Granny's bonnet, lion's herb, lady's shoes, dove plant, God's breath, pigeon flower, pigeon foot, sow wort ~ our native columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris, belongs to a genus of more than 65 species. Often to be found at the edges of meadows and woodlands, it may be more familiar as a resident of cottage gardens, having been cultivated and hybridised with other European, and also North American, members of the aquilegia family. They are a major food source for the garden bumblebee and also for cabbage moths, dot moths, and mouse moths, who are able to feed on many poisonous plants without harm. The genus name, 'aquilegia' comes from the Latin, 'aquila' meaning 'eagle', due to the petals being said to echo the shape of an eagle's claws. The name might also come from 'aquilegias', a 'water- collector', because of the flowers' water holding capabilities, although it feels to me that the flowers are the wrong way up for that; perhaps here there are whispers of the World Turned Upside Down

In contrast, their common name, 'columbine' comes from the Latin, 'columb' for 'dove', due to the spurs of the flower petals looking like five doves sitting together in a circle. What depth of meaning for such a fragile plant to hold, and we have hardly scratched the surface! I find it fascinating that even at this layer of meaning, in the weaving of words, columbines already present much to reflect upon with eagle/hawk and dove being the names given, most often in relation to American politics, to those who are pro or anti-war. The eagle was also a prominent symbol in ancient Rome, especially as a standard of the Roman legion, the teeth and claws of Empire; the legionary who carried it being known as the 'aquilifer', or 'eagle-bearer'. Contrast this with the common folk meaning, the 'people's' meaning, of dove, a word associated with peace and with Spirit, particularly in the Christian faith for whom the dove is one of the most beautiful symbols. Indeed, as Christianity spread into Europe the columbine became associated with the values of Faith, Hope, and Charity, and its three-part leaves became a symbol of the Trinity, with the circle of doves a symbol of the Holy Spirit. So much so that columbines were once often used to stand for Jesus in religious paintings

I like very much that the folk name of these little flowers is linked with the Trinity and with Christ, and through him to standing up to the Roman Empire by facing it with a rebellion of love and the fierce call for justice. I like to think that St Columba, whose own 'Celtic form of 'wild edge' Christianity was forced aside by Rome and it's monk, Augustine, would have approved of the columbine and of the story she carries in her petals. It should never be forgotten that the story of Jesus is grounded in this rebellion; in a refusal to submit to Empire, in siding with the poor and the outcast in the face of corporate and Imperial power, in gathering around him disciples who were not thought learned enough for other Rabbis and teachers and giving them a place in the world that is so often not there for our own young people who may become vulnerable to gang culture and radicalisation as a way to find belonging. This is the path of peace and radical love; the dove standing up against the eagle, of speaking truth to power, despite its message being taken over by Empire when it became the official religion of Rome in 312. Imperialism as an ideology is inherently anti-life, and this energy against life will corrupt, contaminate, and undermine, anything that stands against it and which has beauty in it.  It is up to us to choose where we identify, which path we take, where we will make our stand; no matter who our god/gods/no god might be. The columbine reminds us of that choice, that we have a responsibility in what we bring to birth. This is a rebellion of petals, a revolution of feathers. 

In a piece of wild synchronicity, which so often occurs when I sit down to write pieces such as this, I discovered that to the indigenous First Nations people of Canada the eagle has quite a different meaning. Rev. Cannon Ginny Doctor, Coordinator of the Indigenous Ministries for the Anglican Church of Canada and member of the Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan, writes that for her people, the eagle is a bird of peace. When The Peacemaker came to unify the nations, he travelled the land spreading the need for understanding. At each place he would plant a Tree of Peace and place an eagle on top to watch over the people and warn them if the roots of the tree were being disturbed by disagreement amongst them. The indigenous people, the people of the land, make the eagle a bird of peace, where Empire makes it a bird of war and domination. It is up to us what meaning we choose, whether we will stand with the people of the land, with deep myth and meaning, or with that which seeks to subvert both. It isn't easy to speak out against power, to “fight colonialism with a colonised tongue” (Akala). We might feel that it is impossible, but perhaps by rooting ourselves in the Tree of Peace and the wisdom of the columbine and all our green allies we can be rooted enough to begin to choose what we bring to birth, knowing that it is our birthright, our earthright. We think that we are alone but we're not; we live in a wild web of relationship and belief in the good, in the rightness of Life. And Life wants to live.

And these little flowers, these columbines, do have much to share about that choice. Although they are rarely used in healing in modern times due to their supposed toxicity, their leaves were traditionally used to make lotions for sore mouths and throats (helpful in speaking out!) and in Spain people who were troubled by kidney stones were advised to chew a piece of columbine root in the mornings. The idea that columbines are poisonous seems to come from Charles-Ernest Cornevin, who in his 1893 book 'Des plantes vénéneuses et des empoisonnements qu’elles déterminent' (Poisonous Plants and the Poisonings they Cause), said that it contains aconitine, possibly because it is in the same plant family as one of the most poisonous garden plants, aconitum. However, there is so scientific evidence that this is the case and indeed there are no recorded cases of harm caused by columbines. Interesting then that it should be given such a reputation. And then, what of choice and what we might 'bring to birth'?

Culpepper's 'Complete Herbal' of 1649 says that the seeds of columbine, which are just appearing now all across our land, “causeth a speedy delivery of women in childbirth” when taken with wine. In contrast, the fabulous 'Poison Garden' website says that the 'wise woman' of the village would use columbine to bring on abortion as a community service, 'the best known reference to it coming in Thomas Johnson’s 1633 revision of John Gerard’s ‘Herbal’ where he says that Clusius, the 16th century Flemish botanist, reports its use by Dr Francis Rapard to facilitate labour when the seeds are crushed and mixed with wine. It was thought to be widely used as a home remedy.' Plants, such as birthwort for example, which would aid childbirth are also likely to cause an abortion if used at an earlier stage of pregnancy, and so it is with columbine. There was a time when the green beings around us offered us the right to choose. Now of course we live in very different times, cut off from the earth and all that she offers us, and so the columbine's message of choice becomes more and more urgent, especially now.

Here in the UK, our Government, in the wake of a disastrous General Election result, are seeking to form a loose coalition with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, founded by fundamentalist Protestant leader Ian Paisley in the 1970s. I stand in profound disagreement with the views of both parties, but at the time when the columbines in the 1,000 year churchyard are going to seed and revealing their deepest medicine, it is the DUP's attitude to abortion rights that is uppermost in my mind. As I write, the UK Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by a mother and daughter who have been involved in a legal battle for women from Northern Ireland to be offered free abortions in England on the NHS. In Northern Ireland terminations are only available if a woman's life is at risk, or if there is a possibility of permanent damage to her mental or physical health. Rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormalities are not considered reasons for legal abortion to be offered. Many women, more than 700 in 2016, travel to England at great expense to access private abortions. Those who can raise the money often endure travelling alone, overnight by boat if they can't afford air travel, to a place that they have never been. One 28-year-old said, a lot of bad things have happened to me in my life, but this has been the worst.” In order to save for the journey she had to cut down on food for her family, including her two young children, and stop heating her house. 

Other women, financially or otherwise unable to travel, buy abortion tablets on line and receive them through the post. It is unknown how many this applies to, although the Dutch charities Women on Web and Women Help Women, who are able to provide women with abortion pills by post, receive around 3,000 requests for advice and help from women in Ireland and Northern Ireland each year. In 2016 1,200 parcels containing such pills were seized by Irish customs who investigate all 'suspicious' packages. A woman in Northern Ireland is currently being prosecuted for helping her 15-year-old daughter procure abortion pills and last year a woman was prosecuted for taking them, having been reported by her flatmates. In Northern Ireland, which has the harshest penalty for abortion of any country in Europe, women who have illegal abortions, and anyone found to have helped them, risk life imprisonment. 

The Abortion Support Network, a charity which offers financial support to Irish women who need to travel to England to access their abortion rights, have said that, “We've heard time and time again from women forced by the despair induced by a combination of poverty and draconian abortion laws who have taken matters into their own hands – by ingesting chemicals, by overdosing on medications, by drinking excessively, by literally throwing themselves down stairs to try and induce miscarriage.” Pregnancy counsellors in Northern Ireland have been known to hand out 'information' booklets warning of “a 72% higher risk of rectal and colon cancer among women who have had abortions and a 50% greater risk of breast cancer”, also suggesting that, “a woman who has had one may be more prone to seizures, tremors, comas, frigidity and committing child abuse.” Amnesty International has called upon the UK Government to urgently push for abortion reform in Northern Ireland. This coalition will of course make that less likely and Owen Paterson, the former Northern Ireland secretary, has suggested that there may be a parliamentary debate on further reducing abortion time limits during the next few years. As things are a climate of fear has been created with many women unwilling to speak even to their close friends for fear of being reported; turning woman against woman, dividing us, forcing a climate of silence and unspoken pain and grief. One woman who, unable to afford a trip to England, was forced to go through abortion alone and terrified of being reported said, I feel am being punished for being poor. If I had had money, I would have gone to a clinic, met a nurse, heard from her that everything was going to be OK.” She eventually went to her GP for a check-up two months later and told her that she had had a miscarriage. 

This is far from the wisdom and choice offered to us by our sister-ally, the columbine; our gentle dove, our wise-woman granny's bonnet, with her offering of wild plant medicine to hold our young women in their journeys. I stand with them against a coalition that would deny women the choice to choose what we bring to birth. Judy Griffin in her book, 'Flowers That Heal', says that columbine “enhances the ability to think and act independently of others”, to “drop the role that others have made for us”, and to claiming our autonomy. I stand with the columbine in holding the roots of wild earth wisdom and the liberation of heart and body.

And yet, this feels in so many ways overwhelming. All these things are happening far from me and my little community of columbines in the 1,000 year churchyard. Can the columbine help us to find the courage to raise our voices loud enough to be heard? Marvellously, we have not yet reached the end of our exploration. There is one more piece of folklore that might help us to choose the wilder path and a clue is found in one of the columbine's common names; lion's herb. In medieval times, it was believed that lions ate columbines in the spring to give them strength and so that rubbing the flowers on one's hands would bestow the 'courage of lions'. I think that we might well need that in the days and months to come. It really is time for a rebellion of petals, a revolution of feathers; for the eagle, for the dove, for the columbine, and for us all; it's time to choose what we bring to birth. And perhaps consider too that, although our green companions have much to teach us, it's we who give them their meanings. These are our stories of rebellion, of wild courage, which we have hidden safely in their petals, just as our far off ancestors buried their own treasures in the earth when invaders came. It's not the columbine that allows us to choose. She brings a reminder but the choice has always been ours. We don't need to wait until her flowers come next spring. We have always had the courage of lions. It has always been us, and it's time to roar!

Columbine; looking like a tiny lion

(Disclaimer: please don't take wild medicine, such as the columbine, without the advice of a qualified herbalist. In the case of the columbine, most of us no longer have the wisdom to know what amounts are safe for us to take. Until we claim back our wisdom, let's allow the earth to hold us as safely as she can and respect our not knowing)


On columbines ~

'Flowers That Heal', Griffin, Judy, Paraview Press, 2002.

Other references ~


  1. thank you for speaking out so eloquently about this! women's issues are HUMAN issues. the right to choose when and how and if to birth a child, when denied, has massive negative impacts upon all of society: women, children, men alike... i live in the US, and with the ongoing fundamentalist/republican restrictions to abortion clinic access, we are seeing a huge (and distressing, to me) uptick in web searches for DIY abortion options, deformed data sets in public health as pregnancies "go missing", and terrifyingly draconian legislation being drafted and sometimes passed in many states. all this whilst "the handmaid's tale" is being broadcast... it is time for all women and decent men to roar, indeed.

    1. Thank you so much for reading, and I so agree. This is a human rights issue, which impacts us all. There are terrible things happening in the US I know and I have been reading about it with much dismay. I offer complete solidarity with everyone there. This urge to control our reproductive rights and our sense of having a say over our own bodies comes from the same root as so many other things that are trying to control us. I hope that many of us are now beginning to see that and to see through the manufactured divisions between us. It is ironic indeed that 'The Handmaid's Tale' is being shown as all of this is going on. I remember reading it in the early 90s and not speaking for two days. Now it seems horribly believable in a way that it never was then.

  2. Such a moving piece and especially so in the light of recent events.A fascinating read.

    1. Thank you so much, Deborah. I am so grateful for you reading this and taking the time to comment. I hope that much changes in the week to come that makes this piece much less relevant to now.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I genuinely do appreciate and value what people have to say.