The Columbine or aquilegia is a very pretty flower with a deceptively fragile appearance.
Columbines are native to many countries and are suited for any of the planting zones from 3 to 9. The aquilegia caerulea (or aquilegia coerulea) is native to Colorado and neighbouring areas. It is also known as the Rocky Mountain Columbine and became the state flower of Colorado in 1899. Aquilagia vulgaris is a native of Europe, often known as ‘Granny’s Bonnet’.
The columbine is highly adaptable and suited to a wide range of conditions and locations. It is classified as an herbaceous evergreen perennial. The flowers are an exquisite shape with five characteristic spurred petals sitting above five sepals. The many colour combinations and the nodding habit of the plant has ensured the columbine of a large number of devotees, both human and (humming)bird!
Generally, they do well in partial shade. If planted in full sun, they may need more water. They certainly like well-drained soil but it can be poor to average in quality. The aquilegia is resistant to drought. The thick tap-root means they only need light to medium watering once they are established. Most types grow between 0.3 and 1metre tall.
They come in a number of colours, including bi-colours. Blue, white, yellow, pink, red, purple – you name it, there’s a columbine to provide it. The columbine cross-pollinates, hybridises and self-seeds with gay abandon, creating new colours and strains with no effort whatsoever.
And when not flowering, the foliage provides year-round interest. In autumn, the rosettes turn to maroon until the next flowering season. The deeply lobed leaves which most varieties possess enhance any situation.
Most Aquilegia have an upright and bushy growth habit. Depending on the variety some blooms may face downwards whilst others have more upright flowers.
Columbines do not always reproduce true to type. They are not always long-lived and can lose vitality after a few years. They self-seed easily so dead-heading is not essential if you are looking for fresh plants. Otherwise the foliage should be pruned back in early spring.
If sown by seed, sow seed directly into the garden from early spring onwards. Leave the seeds uncovered as this will encourage faster germination. Plants grown from seed may take several years to bloom.
Purchasing established plants will result in blooms during the first year. Purchasing established plants is also the only way of ensuring possession of a particular cultivar. Seedlings should be planted 0.3 to 0.6 metres apart. Plant the crown at soil level. Keep well-watered during the growing season and feed monthly with an all purpose fertiliser. In colder regions, a hay or straw mulch will help protect plants from extremes of temperature.
Columbines are ideal for cottage, woodland and heirloom gardens. As cut flowers, columbines are long-lasting and colourful. They enhance rock gardens or shady, perennial borders. Massed plantings along walks and drives also make a wonderful statement. The mixed colours of the columbine make it highly attractive to hummingbirds.
For ease of growing, attractiveness and general usefulness, it would be hard to find a better plant than the columbine.