By: Nikki Tilley, Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden
The columbine plant (Aquilegia) is an easy-to-grow perennial that offers seasonal interest throughout much of the year. It blooms in a variety of colors during spring, which emerge from its attractive dark green foliage that turns maroon-colored in fall. The bell-shaped flowers are also a favorite to hummingbirds and may be used in cut-flower arrangements as well.
Columbine plants aren’t too particular about soil as long it’s well-draining and not too dry. While they enjoy full sun in most areas, they don’t like it very hot, especially during summer. Therefore, in warmer areas like the south, grow them in partial shade and give them plenty of mulch to help keep the soil moist.
Mulch will also help insulate and protect these plants during winter in other regions.
Columbines start easily from seed and will readily multiply once established. Columbine flower seeds can be directly sown in the garden anytime between early spring and mid-summer. There’s no need to even cover them as long as they receive plenty of light.
Put pre-established plants in the ground at the same time, with the crown placed at soil level. Spacing for both seeds and plants should be anywhere from 1 to 2 feet (.3-.6 m.). Note: Blooms will not appear on seed-grown plants until their second year.
Keep the plants moist following columbine planting until well established. Then only weekly watering is necessary with exception to extended periods of drought in which they will require additional watering.
Provide a water-soluble fertilizer monthly. Regular fertilizing will help produce brighter blooms and thicker foliage.
Regular deadheading can also be performed to encourage additional blooming. If self-seeding becomes an issue, both the foliage and remaining seedpods can be cut back in the fall. While some people prefer not to allow them to self-sow, it is often recommended, as columbine plants are generally short-lived with an average lifespan of about three or four years. If desired, these plants can also be divided every few years.
Although columbine doesn’t suffer from too many problems, leaf miners can become an issue on occasion. Treating plants with neem oil is a good way to control these pests. Pruning columbine plants back to the basal foliage just after blooming can usually help alleviate any problems with insect pests as well. You may even be lucky enough to get a second set of stem growth within a few weeks so that you may enjoy another wave of blooms.
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With spring flowers that are instantly recognizable due to their unusual spurs and fascinating color combinations, Columbine is a fantastic choice for gardeners who wish to work with native plants when adding colorful, pollinator-friendly selections to both woodland and sunny gardens.
On average to good soils, Columbine will thrive with little help from the gardener, and will continue to re-seed itself in the garden, often popping up where you least expect them. It’s a joy of spring to see the first hummingbirds finding the brightly colored blossoms, so plant them where you’ll be sure to witness the antics of these little airborne acrobats.
Although their flowers last for only a short time, they have a moderate blooming season, usually from mid-spring to early summer. However, a few of mine here in Charleston, South Carolina, hung on past the end of August! Columbines grow best in USDA zones 3 to 10 and prefer sunny to partial shady areas (usually meaning about six hours of morning sun—not the hot baking sun of the day).
They're also perfect for rock gardens and woodland settings. I live in the city but have a courtyard in the back that is sunny in the early morning and shady in the afternoon—they love it there.
Columbines love morning sun and a bit of shade in the hotter parts of the afternoon.
After the first leaves start to appear from the seedling, it’s time to acclimatize the plant for a move outdoors. Don’t place the plant outdoors immediately.
Break it into the new environmental conditions by taking it outside and leaving it in the shade during the day, then bring the pot inside at night.
After a week of this conditioning, you can transplant the seedlings into the flowerbed.
Columbines grow in a variety of soils. However, you need to ensure that the soil has adequate drainage for the roots to stay dry between watering.
Columbines don’t enjoy getting their “feet wet,” and overly moist soil conditions will lead to the development of root rot of fungal disease in the plant.
If you have concerns that your soil is not the right pH, or it doesn’t have enough nutrients, take a sample to the nursery for testing.
While the seedlings are developing a root system, lightly water the plants when the soil starts to get dry. It’s vital that you don’t overwater the seedlings, or they might drown.
After a few weeks, as the plants establish a root system, you can gradually increase the amount of water you give to the plants.
In most cases, Columbines will only require water in dry conditions. If it rains once a week, that should be sufficient to keep your Columbines in good shape.
The Columbines will go into a dormancy period during the winter. Don’t water your plants during the dormancy phase, as it may affect growth in the following season.
Sometimes called Granny’s bonnet or crowfoot, Aquilegia is native to the northeast regions of the United States and Canada.
In addition to these native species, there are introduced species from Europe that are also available to the home gardener, as well as sought-after hybrids that have been cultivated to offer enhancements such as a varied color palette, exceptional hardiness, and impressive heights.
Flowers offer a host of colors, including orange, pink, purple, red, white, and yellow, with contrasting or matching centers. Sizes range from a petite six inches to almost three feet tall.
Often two-toned, the flowers perch atop delicate stems that rise from a cushion of fern-like foliage. Slender nectar-filled spurs attract bumblebees and hummingbirds.
In cool regions, Aquilegia 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 plant 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 on 11 Native Blue Wildflowers for the Garden.
European Aquilegia has also made its way to the United States and is naturalized here. Common varieties include A. vulgaris and A. alpina.
There are over 70 different varieties of columbine flower plants, with many more cultivars based on the most popular varieties. They are all surprisingly hardy, considering their delicate look, and require minimal care.
This plant is native to eastern North America, growing wild in woodland and along rocky slopes. It features foliage in a fern style, with long stalks held high above the leaves from which drooping flowers emerge. The flowers are red and yellow, growing up to 2 inches in size. This variety of columbine flowers is exceptionally disease-resistant, as well as rabbit and deer-resistant. It has won the prestigious Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. Though short-lived, this plant self-seeds easily, providing the native areas where it grows with large clumps of the elegant flowers.
This columbine flower closely resembles the flower of the clematis plant. It is a cultivar of the ‘Aquilegia vulgaris,’ which is the most popular columbine variety and the one you are most likely to see growing in gardens or nurseries. It has double flowers of up to 1.5 inches in diameter on stems that rise elegantly above the foliage below. Unlike most columbine flowers, the variety does not feature spurs, and it is more compact than most other varieties, making it suitable for planting in containers. This variety has flowers in an appealing medium pink color, though other colors are available in the ‘Clementine’ series, including ‘Clementine White,’ ‘Clementine Blue,’ and ‘Clementine Salmon Rose.’
This variety is native to North America, from Montana to New Mexico. It is Colorado’s state flower and is a popular addition to gardens in this region. It grows well in rocky conditions and is drought-tolerant. With 3-inch-wide flowers featuring two-tone blue petals and yellow stamens, this plant is very visually striking. The flowers point upwards on long stems held high above the fern-like foliage. It grows in clumps of up to 24 inches tall, with flowers that bloom for 4 to 6 weeks. This plant requires well-draining soil and will not do well poorly draining soil.
These elegant nodding flowers bloom on long stems rising above blue-green foliage, in vibrant red with yellow accents. Flowers measure up to 2 inches across, with the plant growing up to 36 inches tall. This variety is rabbit and deer-resistant, though it is frequently affected by leaf miners.