Columbines

I was twelve when my father took a sabbatical and brought our family to live in Colorado for a year, and it was there that I first fell in love with columbines.

The plant I saw there was Aquilegia caerulea, the Rocky Mountain columbine, appropriately Colorado's state flower. During summer you see its long-spurred blue and white flowers and delicately divided foliage throughout the mountainous West, from New Mexico to Idaho. To my somewhat fanciful imagination, the graceful, nodding flowers looked like tiny jesters' caps for a royal fairy court.

Later, during college, I spent part of one summer in England, where I greatly admired the cottage gardens of Dorset and Cambridgeshire. A staple plant of these gardens was a short-spurred columbine with somewhat smaller flowers in many colors. These delicate beauties, I learned, were varieties of the European wild columbine or granny's bonnet, A. vulgaris.

Today just the sight of a columbine lifts my spirits--this early-blooming perennial is perhaps one of the reasons I became a gardener. I've learned about the many forms of these delightful plants and that's what I'd like to share with you here.

Tall and Stately, Dwarf and Winsome

My first love was--and still is--Aquilegia caerulea. One of the larger columbines at 2-1/2 feet, its beautiful bi-colored blossoms are long-spurred and flaring, with blue spurs and sepals and white petals. An occasional flower may be all blue.

Another tall North American native is the red and yellow Canadian columbine, A. canadensis. It also has long spurs, but the blossom is quite narrow, an unusual shape among columbines. Like many other brightly colored, tube-shaped flowers, it is attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies.

A southwestern native is A. chrysantha. It is a 3-1/2 foot-high, golden-flowered columbine that has contributed much to modern hybrids. 'Texas Gold', recently introduced by Texas A&M horticulturists, is a selection from plants that grow in the Big Bend region of west Texas. Valued for its heat tolerance and butter yellow flowers, it's recommended for gardeners who live in the mid- to lower South.

The western columbine is A. formosa. Usually found in the shade of sycamores or oaks, it grows throughout much of the West--Utah to California to Alaska. Mature plants are 1-1/2 to 3 feet tall and bear nodding, 1- to 2-inch, red and yellow flowers.

Winsome A. flabellata, the Japanese fan columbine, is a popular 18-inch-high dwarf type. The flowers are short-spurred and similar in shape to the granny's bonnet, but with the celestial color combination of A. caerulea in a deeper blue. Even smaller at 6 to 12 inches high is A. flabellata pumila, also available as all-white variants, 'Alba' and 'Nana Alba'.

Midsized A. fragrans from northern India adds a hint of fragrance to its charms. Blossoms are short-spurred and similar in appearance to the Japanese fan columbine, but with a little more flare to the sepals. The flowers are creamy white, sometimes tinted pink. Though long-lived, A. fragrans has been a shy bloomer for me. Perhaps it would be more productive in a sunnier, drier site. On the other hand, a California correspondent reports it is neither long-lived, floriferous, nor particularly fragrant in her garden.

The European wild columbine, A. vulgaris, must win the prize for being available in the most varieties. For centuries it has been a well-loved and widely grown cottage garden flower. The short-spurred flowers come in many shades of pink, maroon, purple, and white, but are usually not bi-colored.

I find one of the double forms of A. vulgaris, 'Flore Pleno', (or sometimes, 'Plena'), very attractive; only the petals are doubled, the sepals and spurs retain their characteristic graceful form, as if "granny" had added a few more frills to the trimming of her bonnet. A more unusual double cultivar, 'Nora Barlow', is the oldest known columbine. (Records indicate it was known 300 years ago as the "rose columbine.") It has spurless blooms of an older type sometimes called "clematis-flowered" because they're a mass of pointed, doubled sepals. The result is a flower that more resembles a miniature dahlia than a familiar columbine. Its colors are shades of magenta, green, and white. 'Nora Barlow' and the other clematis-flowered types are curiosities. To me, they lack the dainty nodding grace of most columbines; they're more interesting than beautiful.

'Hensol Harebell', a cross between A. vulgaris and A. alpina (the alpine columbine), is a rich blue-purple in color and has proved to be exceptionally long-lived in my garden. The variety 'Woodside' (A. vulgaris, Vervaeneana group) is notable for its yellow or cream variegated foliage.

Aquilegia hybrida is perhaps the most common columbine in American gardens. This is the familiar long-spurred large-flowered type. Originally A. hybrida indicated crosses of A. canadensis and A. vulgaris only. But in practice this group includes bloodlines of other species such as A. caerulea, A. chrysantha and others.

Available mostly as bi-colors in bright combinations of red, blue, purple, pink, white, and yellow, these hybrids challenge bearded iris for the title "rainbow flower." A group of these in bloom is as colorful as a gathering of jockeys arrayed in gaily colored racing silks!

There are many named strains of these hybrids. Most are available only in mixed colors. The McKana Hybrids (an All-America Selections bronze medal winner in 1955), the Dragonfly Hybrids, the Olympia and Mrs. Scott Elliott strains and Biedermeier Mixed are a few of these. Biedermeier Mixed make sturdy 12- to 18-inch plants that perform well in southern Califonia, I'm told. They bear a profusion of double- and single-flowered, upward-facing blooms in a mix of colors and bi-colors. In windy weather, the large blossoms of all these columbines seem almost to dance atop their long, wiry stems. In European gardens, short-spurred versions of A. hybrida are more popular. The short spurs indicate relatively more A. vulgaris parentage.

How to Grow Columbines

Columbines fall into two basic size groupings: tall and dwarf. The dwarf types usually remain under one foot in height and bear blossoms one to two inches in diameter. They are an excellent choice for rock gardens, where their dainty scale can be displayed to advantage. Space them about six inches apart.

Taller types may grow to two to three feet, and flowers are often two or three times the size of the smaller types. These plants need space. Mature specimens may spread their leaves over an area up to two feet wide, though some of this foliage can be cut back without harming the plants. They show up well from the back of a mixed border or the center of an island bed.

The spreading leaves of tall columbines are an asset in some situations; I have some tiny spring-blooming bulbs planted around a large granny's bonnet and its attractive foliage (blue-green with a silver reverse, and divided like oversized maidenhair fern foliage) helps to hide yellowing scilla leaves.

Most columbines grow happily in sun or part shade, though here in my northern climate, the blossoms seem to be more numerous with at least a half day of sun. In warmer regions, plants need correspondingly more shade. In Texas and southern California, dappled shade is preferred. In most regions, peak bloom time is from mid-spring to early summer, usually around May or June.

All the above varieties tend to self-sow, A. vulgaris freely and the dwarf cultivars somewhat less so. Hybrid seedlings may differ in appearance from their parents, and some may revert to wild types; seedlings can easily be removed where they are not wanted. The hybrids are usually longer-lived than the species, but this tendency to self-sow, which allows the species types to perpetuate themselves, somewhat offsets this characteristic.

Good drainage is key to getting as many years out of a planting as possible. Roots prefer to remain undisturbed so plant where you want them to grow. In general, either shallow soils or containers don't work well because each plant needs room for a long taproot.

Columbines are nearly pest free, although their foliage is sometimes plagued by leaf miners. These insects usually only cause cosmetic damage, however, and don't shorten the life of the plant nor curtail bloom production. In some areas, powdery mildew occurs in spring. Spider mites are sometimes a problem in warm climates.

You can prolong the bloom season by pinching off faded flowers, but I usually let mine develop the characteristic pronged seedheads, which are attractive in their own right and add interest to the garden in winter. Hardy plants, columbines need no special autumn care or winter protection, though it is advisable to clean up the foliage after it yellows to discourage the overwintering of slugs and insects. Simplest is to cut off all foliage in fall; healthy new leaves soon appear. Dr. Steve George, Texas A&M University Extension horticulturist in Dallas, recommends that southern gardeners remove all foliage late July to early August if plants are plagued by pests. They'll regrow vigorously with the cooler temperatures in fall.

Article published on June 23, 2008.

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