Stems 15-60 cm. Basal leaves 2-3×-ternately compound, 7-30 cm, much shorter than stems; leaflets to 9-26(-32) mm, not viscid, either green adaxially or glaucous on both sides; primary petiolules 15-57 mm (leaflets not crowded), glabrous or pilose, sometimes somewhat viscid. Flowers nodding; sepals divergent from floral axis, red or apex yellow-green, elliptic-ovate to ovate or lanceolate, 7-20 × 3-8 mm, apex obtuse to acuminate; petals: spurs red, straight, ± parallel, 16-32 mm, stout proximally, slender distally, abruptly narrowed near middle, blades yellow or red and yellow, oblong or rounded, 4-12 × 3-8 mm; stamens 14-19 mm. Follicles 15-30 mm; beak 8-12 mm.
Flowering spring-fall (May-Oct). Open rocky places; 2000-2500 m; Ariz., N.Mex., Utah.
Aquilegia desertorum is very similar to A . canadensis . Further research is needed to determine whether they are really distinct at the species level. The leaflets may be weakly viscid abaxially in plants from the Zion National Park area, Utah.
Plants from the eastern and southern parts of the range of Aquilegia desertorum have usually been considered a distinct species, A . triternata , mainly because of their longer sepals and petal blades (sepals narrowly ovate to lanceolate, 12-20 × 4-8 mm, apex acuminate, petal blades 6-12 mm in A . triternata versus sepals ovate or elliptic-ovate, 7-13 × 3-6 mm, apex obtuse or acute, petal blades 3-5 mm in A . desertorum in the strict sense). These sepal and petal types intergrade over much of central Arizona, however, and other characteristics supposedly diagnostic for A . triternata (leaves not glaucous, 3×-ternately compound) are scarcely correlated with the flower characteristics or with one another.
The Navaho-Kayenta used Aquilegia desertorum as an aid in ceremonies (D. E. Moerman 1986).
Kearney and Peebles 1969, McDougal 1973, USFS 2011
Duration: Perennial Nativity: Native Lifeform: Forb/Herb General: Herbaceous perennials to 60 cm tall, herbage bright green, more or less glaucous to pubescent or pilose. Leaves: Ternately decompound, leaflets with roughly toothed to rounded lobes, upper surfaces glabrous above, and glabrous to pubescent below. Flowers: Red, large and showy, nodding, petals yellow, 5, each with a small blade 7-8 mm long and a long, red spur, sepals 5, red, sometimes tinged with yellow, 12-20 mm long, petaloid, nearly equaling the spurs in length, stamens numerous, yellow, exserted, usually about 10 mm longer than the petal blades, flowers nodding, borne at branch tips. Fruits: Follicles with long, slender beaks. Seeds many. Ecology: Found in rocky areas in coniferous forests, often near wetted areas, from 4,000-10,000 ft (1219-3048 m); flowering May-October. Distribution: Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Notes: Look for this species in the high mountains of Apache, Cochise, Santa Cruz, and Pima counties of Arizona. Tropicos has the current name for this species as Aquilegia desertorum as of January 2012. Ethnobotany: The plant was used as a ceremonial fumigant for headaches or other severe pain. Synonyms: Aquilegia triternata many others, see Tropicos Editor: LCrumbacher 2011