How to Grow and Care for Columbines

Introduction

With beautiful bell-shaped flowers, columbine is an excellent garden perennial with many colorful hybrid varieties to choose from.

About Columbines

Columbine (also known as Granny's bonnet) is known for its distinctive, bell-shaped, spurred flowers, which bloom from mid-spring to early summer. Though individual plants are short-lived, lasting only two to three years, columbine self-seeds prolifically and will persist in the garden with volunteer seedlings. With a wide choice of hybrid varieties, colors range from light pastels to bright yellow, red, orange and purple selections. The plant foliage is has an attractive lacey appearance.

Special Features of 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.

Aquilegia 'Snow Queen' is well known for its striking , pure white spurred flowers.

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Adelaide Addison' displays bi-color white and blue flowers in the early summer.

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Nora Barlow' has attractive double spurless flowers in red, pink and pale green.

Choosing a Site to Grow Columbines

Most columbines grow happily in sun or part shade, though in northern climates, 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.

Planting Instructions for Columbines

Plant in spring, spacing plants 1 to 3 feet apart, depending on the variety. Prepare the garden bed by using a garden fork or tiller to loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 15 inches, then mix in a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost. Dig a hole twice the diameter of the pot the plant is in. Carefully remove the plant from its container and place it in the hole so the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface. Carefully fill in around the root ball and firm the soil gently. Water thoroughly.

Ongoing Care of Columbines

Columbine is prone to a fungal disease called powdery mildew. The spores spread through splashing water and travel on wind currents to infect other plants. Once established, powdery mildew is difficult to control. Most fungal diseases develop during rainy, wet weather, but powdery mildew develops when daytime temperatures are warm and nights are cool. The disease is not dependent on water on the leaves. You can help your columbines resist the disease by cutting back the affected plant parts (down to ground level if necessary), providing afternoon sunshine, and lots of air circulation in and around the plants.

One of the most common pest on columbine is leaf miner. These fly larvae feed inside the leaf. You'll see their damage as light-colored, winding tunnels on the leaf surfaces. Cut off and destroy all infested foliage after plants have bloomed; the new leaves that regrow later in the season will be miner-free.

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.

You can prolong the bloom season by pinching off faded flowers, but you can also let the flowers 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.

Some popular Columbines photos:
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