''Unquestionably the most beautiful plant of the European Alps,'' wrote Reginald Farrer of a columbine, Aquilegia alpina, in 1908. The ''prince of alpine gardeners,'' as Farrer has been called, found himself at something of a loss to describe this particular member of the lovely columbine family, not one of which, even the most common, seems to be without delicacy and innate charm.
The columbine is a truly decorative plant. It is not one of those plants in which everything ornamental is concentrated in the flower: every part of it contributes to a complete ornateness. Its ''airiness'' has been noted by several writers, Farrer included: ''The flowers,'' he wrote, ''dancing high on airy stems, are . . . most exquisitely, daintily balanced, and the soft, melting blue is quite impossible to describe - a colour deep yet gentle, brilliant yet modest , perfectly clear and yet not flaunting.''
The columbine's five petals extend backward into spurs tipped with small knobs. It is these spurs that are held responsible for the plant's various names , official and unofficial. The herbalist, John Gerard, like a man reaching for new words, described them as ''small leaves standing upright of the shape of small birds,'' and Webster says the plant was named after ''columba,'' the dove, from ''the fancied resemblance of the inverted flower to a group of five pigeons.'' In Somerset it has been given such names as ''Doves at the Fountain'' and ''Doves round a Dish.'' (Just to throw a cat among all these pigeons, however, the other and far less euphonious title, aquilegia, connects the plant with eagles: there do not seem to be any convincing theories why.)
The spurs contain nectar, ''sought after by long-tongued insects and humming-birds,'' according to the botanist Ruth Nelson. She, however, is describing the species that flourish in Colorado. One of them is actually the state flower - the ''Queen'' of the columbines - which grows ''in some form from moist foothill canyons up to over 12,000 feet throughout the Rocky Mountains.'' There is something enchantingly right about the Colorado columbine's association with hummingbirds: little creatures that are as airy and nimble as the flower.
The colours of wild columbine flowers range from Farrer's ''melting blue'' to delicate creams and violets, salmon pink, shell pink, faint yellow and then, by contrast, surprisingly deep purple, vivid orange, clear red or bright yellow. Often one flower combines two colours, in graceful harmony.
In art terms, the columbine is definitely a linear, rather than a painterly, flower. It doesn't invite expressionist splashes of pigment, or free movements of colour; it asks for precise depiction, for outline and neatness. One of the most memorable paintings of the columbine is, in fact, by that fifteenth-century Flemish master of almost austere realism and exactness, Hugo van der Goes. With a glass of water to itself, the stem of a columbine, profuse with hanging flower-heads, is prominently featured in the centre-front of the main panel of the famous Portinari Altarpiece. Perhaps it is given such a significant position because it is a symbol of the Holy Ghost (which took the form of a dove at Jesus' baptism). Or perhaps - since the panel represents the Adoration of the Shepherds - the artist thought of this fine and elegant flower as a natural gift for country people to bring, celebrating the birth of the Messiah. There are other flowers, too, on the ground in front of the tiny child, but they are not given the individual importance of the columbine.
Durer, the great German painter of the next generation, also brought minute attention, and particularity of drawing, to bear on grasses and flowers. There is some scholarly dispute about the attribution of the watercolour Columbine, but those who put it forward as a Durer (including its owners, the Albertina in Vienna) point out how similar it is in concept and handling to the artist's so-called Large Piece of Turf, in which wild meadow grasses and plants are pictured with close distinctness and almost scientific interest. The artist sees and presents his columbine as a literal chunk of nature, just as it would be actually growing, if not dug up for his special concentration. It is almost as though he viewed the microcosm of plant life from the standpoint of an insect, or some creature actually smaller then the wealth of foliage, stems, buds and flowers towering over its head. Perhaps Durer's affectionate curiosity had been roused, on his first journey over the Alps into Italy, by wild columbines, continually encountered. Or he may, like Hugo ven der Goes, have intended the flower to be an item in a large painting - though his watercolour studies of nature often stand on their own. Whatever the motive, this watercolor of 1503-05 , is an intricately subtle, patient and clear representation of a flower which the artist obviously felt more than merited his devoted appreciation.