Aquilegia or columbine has long been one of my favorite flowering perennials. A cheerful plant, it would pop up in the most unexpected places around the garden and pathways.
- Sun: sun to light shade
- Bloom Color: whites, pinks, reds, blues in combination
- Bloom Time: early summer
- Height: 6” to 30” depending on variety and species
- Width:plant 6” apart for dwarves and 12” a more upright growing plant
- Propagation: seed, self-sows prolifically
- Hardiness: Easily into USDA 3
- LIfespan: 2-3 years but self-sowing where happy
- Best Soil: an open soil, indeed most of mine were happiest in the gravel pathways. Not a plant for clay.
- Potential disease problems: none serious
Rock gardens, main borders, cut flowers (some texts say the fragrance is like “hay” but I’ve never noticed anything from them – I suspect you’d have to stick your nose right into the blossom (and at that range, everthing smells like hay) :-).
There are some older recommendations for herbal use but also cautions about it being poisonous in the wrong dose.
Culpepper is quoted as saying, “The leaves of Columbine are successfully used in lotions for sore mouths and throats. . . . The Spaniards used to eat a piece of the root thereof in a morning fasting many days together, to help them when troubled with stone. The seed taken in wine with a little saffron removes obstructions of the liver and is good for the yellow jaundice.”
Bottom line – leave it in the garden.
Growing Care Tips:
This is an easy plant if the drainage is good. It will not self-sow very well into mulched gardens so do be aware that it requires open ground or pathways. I loved the look of the alpine dwarf varieties in the pathways and encouraged them there.
Height varies from three inches to over thirty inches
Note a warmer summer and full sunlight causes them to stretch out (Southern gardeners want to protect them from full hot sun)
This is one of the most promiscuous of flowers, producing large numbers of seed and if you have two distinct species in your garden, it will not take long to have hybrids.
Also, because they tend to be short lived plants (3 years more or less) you need to keep new ones coming along from seed. This presents a small problem with the hybrid varieties as the offspring are not guaranteed to come true from seed. I suggest you rogue out the flowers you don’t like – just pull them right out of the ground (weed them out) when you see them. In this way, they won’t contribute their genetics to the next crop of seeds. I confess I was destructor-on-wheels with the columbine because they would throw off some really, really ugly flowers if you let them. (remember – you get to make the call here – if you like the look of the bloom, let it self-sow but if not – be ruthless and compost the offender)
Because the plant is so promiscuous and so prolifically self-sowing, you’ll never miss the truly ugly colors (and you may wind up with some truly special ones if you keep on selecting only the best)
Having said that, if you want to start them indoors, they will germinate quite nicely at 70F soil temperatures after a 90 day stay in the refrigerator crisper. See the propagation section for directions. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you though when you see how many you’re going to get.
The major insect problem with this plant is the leaf miner. You’ll see tunnels (whitish lines – irregular directions) on the infected leaf and this is simply a small worm happily eating its way around between the layers of the leaf. You can’t reach it with sprays so the easiest thing to do is squeeze the ends of the tunnels to kill the small worm.
Predator nematodes will attack the larva as it is pupating in the ground.
Some forms such as A. canadensis and A. bertolonii are not as susceptible to leaf miners but they all eventually get it.
Find these at Garden Centers
Aquilegia alpina is a terrific plant if you can find it. Deep sky-blue flowers on 12 inch plants. It is wonderful for the front of the border or rock garden.
Aquilegia bertolonii is my favorite columbine. This 6 to 8 inch tall plant has blue and cream flowers. Try it in the rock garden either in full sun or light shade. It self sows abundantly in part shade locations in my garden rather than in full sun. It is easy from seed scattered in alpine gardens but not in mulched perennial gardens. (the mulch stops it from germinating).
Aquilegia caerulea – the Rocky Mountain Columbine grows 18” to 24” in my garden and has blue and white flowers. This is one of the parents of modern hybrids.
Aquilegia canadensis – this one is 18 inches tall in full sun and part shade spots. The flowers (red and yellow) are smaller than the garden center hybrids but very attractive. It is easy to naturalize and grow. One of the better species for shadier spots as well as damp garden areas.
Aquilegia chrysantha is another of my favourites. Three feet tall and fantastic when in yellow bloom. The flowers are large and the spurs long so it stands out in the garden. Unfortunately, it has also been one of the shortest- lived columbines in my garden, seldom living longer than two years.
Aquilegia flabellata – this is one of the foundation plants for modern columbine breeding. One of the nicest forms is the pure white form ‘nana’. It is only 12 inches tall with glistening white flowers to 18 inches. The foliage forms a wonderful rounded mass and is quite heavy and glaucous compared to other aquilegia. If you find this plant at a specialist garden center, purchase it. I’ve seen some cultivars in garden centers of this plant and can recommend them.
Aquilegia parviflora is the only columbine with erect up-ward facing flowers (native to Siberia). All others have a downward facing habit. I had this plant for some time but lost it’s purplish-blue charm to a very wet summer.
Aquilegia vulgaris – this columbine is known in Europe as “Granny’s Bonnet” and grows 18 to 24 inches tall. This plant has been bred for so long with so many other species that finding the original species is becoming difficult. This is the parent of the Vervaeneana group that have variegated or gold flecks in the leaves and can either be quite attractive or look quite sickly. Many doubles have also been bred from A. vulgaris genetics.
The old stand-by ‘Nora Barlow’ a pink and green colored form, is quite stable and has bred true year after seeding year in my garden.
‘Irish Elegance’ is another older A. vulgaris plant that is making a comeback.
Aquilegia x hybrida – there are some wonderful hybrids being bred and introduced to the market. Note that most of these are not too stable in terms of colors. They do not breed true and sometimes what you purchase is not what is advertised because even the seed provided to nurseries has some variability. When the breeders aren’t sure what they have on their hands, they either give it a name (as below) or they simply call it A. hybrida.
‘Biedermeier’ is offered by many seed companies. The blue and white form is acceptable – other colors are muddy and not worth growing in my experience.
‘Dragonfly’ is a color mix and grows to 24 inches tall. Good color range and worth growing.
‘McKenna Hybrids’ are 18 to 24 inch tall hybrids quite commonly found in commercial nurseries. They’ve had good color ranges in my garden.
‘Music’ series. One of the better hybrids at 18 inches. Good color mix and the colors tend to be more intense than other varieties in my garden.
‘Winky’ series is double and very floriferous (lots of blooms)