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Why Do Columbines Change Color? 

Why Do Columbines Change Color? 

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Willie Moore
Latest posts by Willie Moore (see all)

Columbines are a sight to behold, from the Rocky Mountains to cultivated gardens. Most columbines are bi-colored, ranging from pastel shades to vibrant hues. One of its most fascinating characteristics is that it changes its color. 

Columbines change colors because of DNA mutation, natural selection, adaptive mutation, and hybridization. While this usually applies to hydrangeas, it’s also assumed that the color change in columbines results from changes in soil conditions. 

In this article, I’ll discuss the reasons why columbines change colors. Read on and discover the scientific explanation for this phenomenon. 

The Science Behind Columbines Changing Color 

For several years, columbines have been the subject of several studies investigating evolution and ecology in flowers.

Their diverse physical characteristics are believed to be a response to the effects of pollinators, and the latter causes a shift in size and colors. As such, there are about 70 columbine species to date (source). 

One of the notable studies involving columbines was conducted at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

There were two columbines varieties in the study: 

  • Red columbines that are pollinated by hummingbirds. 
  • White or yellow columbines that are pollinated by hawkmoths. 

Columbines can change from blue to red, then white to yellow. According to the researchers, the color shift from red to white or yellow in columbines has already happened at least five times in North America

DNA Mutation 

A key research finding is a DNA mutation in columbines, which has caused the color change. The study revealed that essential genes are destroyed, creating a hiccup in the flower’s system. The mutation can also disable critical genes, and when this happens, the resulting blooms are often white due to the absence of any pigment. 

More so, the University of California Santa Barbara researchers also mapped the biochemical pathways responsible for flower color pigments. Based on their findings, at least 34 genes produce the different flower colors. 

Because of the presence of various genes, there’s an increased likelihood that the color of columbines will change due to gene mutation. It doesn’t happen because of the creation of new genes. Rather, it’s because of the mutation of the current genes. 

Natural Selection 

In the same study mentioned above, researchers also noted the impact of natural selection, specifically on pollinators. 

If most pollinators are hummingbirds, most of the columbine colors are red. However, when the population shifts and most of the pollinators become hawkmoths, there’s a potential for the color to modify. The resulting blooms can become white or yellow. 

Earlier research suggested that the mouthparts of pollinators are highly responsible for the colors of the flowers. Yellow columbines are believed to have pollinators with long tongues, so they can easily reach the bottom of the nectar (source). 

A Case of Adaptive Radiation 

Another concept explored in the study of the changes of colors in columbines is adaptive radiation. This is based on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, where it’s assumed that living organisms change their structures to better adapt to the changes in their surroundings (source). 

Adaptive radiation is one of the principles of evolutionary biology. When applied in the case of columbines, the flowers develop new traits as a response to changes in their environment. In this case, the changes include the pollinators (source). 

While we can apply the concept of adaptive radiation in color changes in columbines, it’s worth noting that the focus of the research was the changes in the nectar spurs. The length varies from various columbine variants, which is believed to be because of their pollinators. 

Research shows that columbine flowers are tailored to the tongues of their pollinators, which shows an example of how it evolves based on their environment (source).

Hybridization of Different Species 

The change in the color of columbines can also be due to cross-breeding. Hybridization happens when the male and female parts are pollinated. The goal is to combine the positive attributes of the two species, resulting in changes in physical characteristics, better yield, and disease resistance, among others (source). 

Hybridization can be a non-deliberate attempt. This can happen when you plant two varieties next to each other. For example, blooms can have yellow and red hues when you have Southwestern yellow columbines near eastern red columbines.

Hence, there are more changes in color than what you initially expected from the original variants (source).

To prevent this problem with hybridization, the best thing to do is plant varying species at a safe distance. However, this isn’t a fool-proof solution but can be helpful. 

New Seedling Generations 

When you plant new columbines, you’re probably expecting the color of the flowers to be the same as where the seeds are from. This may not always be the case, which can be another explanation for the color change. 

Some types of columbines are more stable than others. As such, they can produce the same physical characteristics as their parents, including color. However, less stable plants can have a different color than their parent each time new seedlings are planted (source). 

Changes in Soil Conditions 

Another potential culprit behind the color change of the columbines is the soil conditions. It’s common for the colors to shift because of slight changes in the soil’s pH. In addition, the presence and absence of metal ions in the soil can also be the reason

However, while most people would assume this, it’s important to note that current scientific explanations are limited to the case of hydrangea and not columbine itself. However, it’s still interesting to note the relationship between soil composition and flower color. 

Most plants can absorb nutrients from the soil when the pH level ranges from 6 to 6.5. Hence, anything lower or higher can result in the nutrients being unavailable. It can affect plants in multiple ways, and one of the possibilities is a color change (source). 


The color change of columbines is a fascinating phenomenon. Earlier research has suggested that it can be because of changes in DNA mutation. In addition, it can be because of the shift in the population or types of pollinators. More so, there can be hybridization and the generation of new seedlings. 

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