Old-fashioned cottage gardens are not complete without columbines dancing in spring. These familiar and charming flowers have seeded themselves for generations, breeding promiscuously to produce a huge range of single-color and bicolor blooms. The spurred flowers are fancifully reminiscent of bird claws; the botanical name Aquilegia is derived from aquila, an eagle, while columbine comes from columba, a dove.
Columbines hail from northern temperate regions of the world and grow best in cool climates. Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis, to 2 feet tall, Zones 3–8) and its taller Western cousin, crimson or Formosa columbine (A. formosa), are among 15 or so North American species. Both favor moist areas of woodland clearings, rock ledges, and cliffs, where their nodding, straight-spurred, red-and- yellow flowers put on quite a show. To come upon a stand of these blooming in the wild is unforgettable. But they are not just beautiful: Young Native American men spread crushed or chewed fragrant seeds (reputedly poisonous) on their bodies to attract women; some tribes considered crimson columbine a love charm and a financial good luck charm. Other natives include Colorado’s state flower, longspurred blue or white Colorado columbine (A. caerulea, to 3 feet tall, Zones 3–8). This and the more Southern yellowgolden columbine (A. chrysantha, to 4 feet tall, Zones 4–8) are parents of the large-flower, long-spurred hybrids.
As ornamentals, hybrid columbines (Aquilegia × hybrida) are the most popular. Their large spurred flowers bloom above ferny foliage in a wide range of pinks, blues, lavenders, yellows, and white, many bicolor. Most have upward- or outward-facing flowers on strong stems about 2 feet tall. Named cultivars, such as red-and-white ‘Crimson Star’, are available; violet-and-white ‘Colorado’ was renamed Remembrance after the Columbine, Colorado, tragedy, and proceeds were donated toward scholarships.
The best-known European species, A. vulgaris, familiarly called granny’s bonnet, bears variable blue or violet flowers with short incurved spurs ending in conspicuous knobs. Thomas Jefferson grew double columbines (A. vulgaris ‘Plena’) at Monticello. Double, spurless, dark reddish-pink-and-white ‘Nora Barlow’ is well-known.
Columbines are available in nurseries and garden centers, but the plants are readily started from seed. It’s easiest to scatter the seeds outdoors in fall; they will be chilled over the winter and germinate the following spring. For spring sowing, refrigerate the seed packet for a few weeks prior to seeding. You can collect your own seeds as well, but these seldom come true to a particular variety. Columbines grow well in Zones 3–9. Plant them at least 1 foot apart in a lightly or partly shaded spot. Average soil that’s well-drained and high in organic matter is best; avoid soggy conditions. Replace columbines every few years when the rootstock becomes woody. To maintain vigor, divide selected healthy plants before spring growth begins. Regular deadheading avoids unwanted selfseeding. Leaf miner is the bane of columbines; these fly larvae burrow beneath the leaf surface, leaving unsightly whitish tracks. Remove damaged leaves and destroy them (do not compost) or apply a systemic pesticide. In severe cases, cut the whole plant to the ground.
Columbines enhance any garden area. In woodlands or among shrubs, native species are most appealing combined with wildflowers, including foam flowers and woodland phlox. In formal areas, the elegant and colorful hybrids shine; partner them with late-spring tulips, peonies, and penstemons.This spring, add grace and charm to your garden with columbines. You will likely become enchanted with them, as will the hummingbirds, butterflies, and moths that sip nectar from the bases of their flower spurs.
Plant at a Glance
Common name: Columbine
Botanical Name: Aquilegia species, hybrids, and cultivars
Size: 1–3 feet tall
Bloom time: Spring and early summer
Hardiness: Zones 3–9
Conditions: Columbines do best in rich, moist soils that do not dry out; however, they do not tolerate poor drainage. Moderate to light shade is desirable, although in Northern regions they thrive in full sun. Most plants need replacement after three years or so but self-seed generously.
Best feature: Columbines’ colorful spurred flowers dance atop wiry stems, providing movement in the spring garden. Divided, graygreen foliage is an attractive foil for the flowers but might become shabby, especially if attacked by leaf miners.
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