The Wood Folk Diaries: Volume 4 (Poisonous Plants), Chapter 5: Red Columbine and Yew

Table of Contents

Dear Wood Folk,

A couple months ago we covered buttercups. Eastern red AKA Canada columbine AKA wild columbine (aquilegia canadensis) is also a member of the notoriously toxic buttercup family. All plants in this family produce toxins when wounded or macerated. Substances you wouldn’t want to handle or ingest.

The leaves of our native red columbine resemble meadow rue, but the flowers are telltale. The flowers actually look like honeysuckle:

Red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Yew on the other hand is is one of our native evergreens. It’s important to distinguish from hemlock, fir, and juniper. The red berries stand out:

Yew (Taxus Canadensis)
Yew (Taxus Canadensis)

Both of these plants are included in the “poisonous” chapters in some foraging books.

Are Red Columbine and Yew really edible?

There are online sources and even a couple books out there that say the red flowers and the nectar red columbine flowers hold are both edible and sweet. That is.. some say “probably” or “reportedly” edible. And many of the social media comments on its edibility call it honeysuckle. In my experience social media groups can’t even ID plants correctly half the time, and I don’t ever recommend eating something because people on the Internet gave the okay. Most sources note other parts of the plant contain a cyanogenic glycoside that turns into hydrogen cyanide when the plant is damaged. The roots and seeds being the most poisonous. The buttercup (ranunculaceae) plant family seems to universally contain ranunculin which becomes toxic protoanemonin when damaged. So, I’ve been doubtful and hesitant to eat this pretty red flower..

My previous favourite edible plant book says columbine species are “probably poisonous”. However, this year (2023) a new book by Samuel Thayer came out, and I had my fingers crossed that he would cover red columbine. Sam is the modern Euell Gibbons. Euell corrected many old texts about foraging, and Sam has corrected Euell and has been publishing impressive foraging books for a while now. He has a huge following on TikTok. He’s a trusted source, and eats everything he talks about foraging. I was thrilled to see he did cover this columbine in his newest book, “Sam Thayer’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern & Central North America“. The flowers of red columbine are the only edible part. Because of this it’ll eventually be featured as an Edible & Medicinal plant here. Btw, Sam’s book is my new fav, and you can buy it via Amazon and we’ll get a few cents too for the tip! 700 Edible species are in this book. It’s huge!

For yew, as noted in a previous Edible & Medicinal Plants feature, only the berry itself is edible. The seeds and every other part of the plant are highly toxic.

Medicinal Uses of Red Columbine and Yew

Like many poisonous plants, red columbine does have history as medicine, but due to overdoses and death (of children in particular) use was discontinued in mainstream Western herbal medicine. I’m not sure if this is the case for all herbal modalities, e.g. Chinese medicine.

Yew on the other hand is the source of the anticancer drug Taxol. But this is not something you self administer. Eating as few as 50 yew leaves can be lethal. 

Red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) – the largest patch I’ve found in the wild so far

Growing Aquilegia Canadensis

Red columbine is a host plant for the Columbine duskywing (erynnis lucilius). Hummingbirds and other pollinators like bumblebees will visit too! And due to the toxins, deer should leave it alone.

I bought some red columbine from ONPlants and it’s doing great. I only wish I’d bought more. I recommend getting many. It’s also easy to grow from seeds, which you can scatter in autumn. Take care to only have the native columbine around as it’ll readily hybridize with other Aquilegia species. They can grow about anywhere, and may even be found in wetlands. But I usually find it in meadows and along trails in the woods.

Growing Taxus Canadensis

A yew shrub can be planted after threat of frost in Spring, and it’s a versatile evergreen as far as soil and sun needs go. It’s similar to juniper in appearance, a low growing evergreen.

Next year’s poisonous plants will include water hemlock, baneberry, lupines, virgin’s bower, anemones, and maybe spurge, bog laurel, milk vetch, sweetpea, white snakeroot, and perhaps poison ivy? And I may write diaries on more category dodging plants like yew and red columbine. Subscribe for notifications!

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Sam Thayer’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern & Central North America

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

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