Columbine, or Aquilegia, is an intriguing member of the Ranunculaceae family and a relative of the buttercup. The petals of aquilegia are exquisite.
Often two-toned, flowers perch atop delicate stems that rise from a cushion of fern-like leaves.
They may be shades of red or pink, purple or blue, with matching or contrasting centers. Slender nectar-filled spurs attract bumblebees and hummingbirds.
A Beauty by Many Names
Sometimes called granny’s bonnet or crowfoot, there are native and introduced types of aquilegia.
In cool regions, it grows well in full sun, however in warmer areas, it benefits from partial to full shade. Average to moist well-drained soil is best for this drought tolerant plant.
A. canadensis, also known as Eastern or wild red columbine, is a native commonly found in the cool shade of woodland regions. Its characteristic downward-facing pendant blossoms of red or pink with yellow centers are well known to mountain hikers.
Another native you might know is A. caerulea. The Colorado blue variety is described in our article 11 Native Blue Wildflowers for the Garden.
European Aquilegia has made its way to the United States and is naturalized here. Common varieties include A. vulgaris and A. alpina.
There is an abundance of columbine on the market, thanks to cultivars created especially for American gardens. Look for exceptional features like pest-resistance, unusual colors, double petals, varying spur lengths, and upward-facing blossoms.
You’re sure to find your new favorites with choices like the yellow and white fragrant A. fragrans, originating high in the Himalayan Mountains, and the orange and yellow Mexican jewel, A. skinneri.
Plays Well with Others
Aquilegia is a great plant for beds and borders because it comes in a wide variety of colors, has a shallow root system, and grows in clumps.
Plants usually live for about three years, but this is a self-sower. If you allow the seedlings to take hold, you may have blossoms for years to come.
However, keep in mind that while a native plant sows seeds identical to the parent plant, the seeds of a hybrid may or may not produce plants of equal quality.
A popular choice for cottage-style gardening, aquilegia performs well with a backdrop of taller plants. It benefits from the shade cast by companions, and creates a delicate, wispy foreground display.
It’s also great in containers and for gardening in small spaces, where well-behaved plants are essential.
Aquilegia Plant Facts
- Average to moist well-drained soil
- Clumping perennial
- Colors include red, orange, yellow, pink, purple, white
- Blooms early spring into summer
- Easy to grow
- Full sun to full shade
- Grow from seeds or plants
- Native, introduced, and cultivars
- Six inches to three feet in height
- Zones 3 to 8
Where to Buy
McKanas Giant Columbine, A. x hybrida, is available from Mountain Valley Seed Company.
These award-winning late spring bloomers in a variety of colors have fine, long spurs, with three- to four-inch blossoms resting securely atop hefty 30-inch stems. Select a 1/4 or 1-ounce package of seeds.
McKana is a well-respected hybrid, a product of combining plants to achieve the most excellent features of each.
A Breath of Spring
I’ve always enjoyed growing these lovely harbingers of spring.
When they begin to grow beneath my weeping cherry, I know another Northeastern winter is behind me, and the days will soon be warm.
As your flowers grow, you may notice some damage to the foliage. This is most likely due to the activity of a pest called the leaf miner. Simply pinch off the discolored or misshapen leaves and throw them away in the trash.
You may want to deadhead as the season wears on, as this tends to produce more flowers. And when your lovely ladies have finished blooming, cut the plants back to the soil, where they will lie dormant until the first breath of spring awakens them next year.
It’s time to add columbine to your garden plan. It’s an incredibly beautiful flower that is sure to awe visitors to your outdoor space!
What’s your favorite type of aquilegia? Does it grow in sun or shade? Please share your tips for growing this plant in the comments section below.
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Product photo via Mountain Valley Seed Co. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
About Nan Schiller
Nan Schiller is a writer with deep roots in the soil of southeastern Pennsylvania. Her background includes landscape and floral design, a BS in business from Villanova University, and a Certificate of Merit in floral design from Longwood Gardens. An advocate of organic gardening with native plants, she’s always got dirt under her nails and freckles on her nose. With wit and hopefully some wisdom, she shares what she’s learned and is always ready to dig into a new project!