By Ken Lain, the mountain gardener
This graceful beauty dances in the shade of the garden, holding it’s head high smiling back at you. Few Plants stand so bright in the cooler parts of the garden. This bloomer comes back each spring with lacy green foliage promptly followed by an amazing two-tone flower. An excellent cut flower that is both Deer and Rabbit resistant. So hardy some varieties naturally call Arizona home.
One of the sweetest flowers in mountain gardens are Columbine (Aquilegia). This consistant perennial flower has an airy appearance, with small, rounded leaves and tall flower stalks that hold the blooms above the foliage. The mid-spring blooms fill the void between early spring bulbs and peak garden season. Columbine bell-shaped flowers are popular with hummingbirds, bees, and gardeners alike.
Aquilegia, the botanical name, is from the Latin word Aquila, for ‘eagle,’ and is named for the flower’s resemblance to a bird’s claw. After the Latin word for “dove,” the common name columbine is bestowed on the plant because the inverted flower was thought to resemble five birds clustered together.
Several mountain native species are grown in local gardens, but this plant has been in cultivation for many years, resulting in dozens of popular hybrids and cultivars, with new color variations each year. The plant readily cross-breeds, and gardeners who plant two different varieties sometimes are gifted with self-seeded volunteers with an entirely new appearance.
Botanical Name Aquilegia
Common Name Columbine
Plant Type Perennial
Mature Size 15″ tall x 12″ inch wide
Sun Exposure -6 hours sun
Soil Type Medium moisture, well-drained soil
Soil pH 6.1 to 7.5
Bloom Time Late spring to early summer
Flower Color Blue, orange, pink, purple, red, white, yellow
Native Area Meadows and woodlands of the Mountain West
How to Grow Columbine
Start Columbine flowers from seed or nursery plants. They do well in almost any well-drained potting soil but prefer slightly acidic garden soil. Columbine plants should be planted with the crown at the soil level. This perennial blooms best after thier second growing season and best planted by nursery grown plant. Seeds can be direct sown throughout spring. The seeds need light to germinate, so simply press them on the soil surface and barely cover them with soil. When planted from seeds, it may take two full years before your first good flower show.
Columbine blooms for at least 4 weeks and is a tougher plant than they appear. They are short-lived perennials but readily spread through self-seeding like wildflowers, remaining in your garden for years. When blooms are finished for the season, cut the plants down to the ground and allow surrounding plants to fill in space. The columbines will reliably return the following year or replace themselves with self-seeded volunteers.
For the best flowering and healthiest plants, a spot in partial shade is ideal. Columbine can handle full spring sun but appreciate some shade in the heat of the summer.
Any type of soil can grow columbine plants, though it does better with sandier, loamier soils and not quite as well in heavy clay soils. Amend heavily with Watters Premium Mulch or plant directly into Watters Potting Soil for longest bloom.
New plants will need to be kept moist until established. You’ll know they are established when they start putting out a lot of new growth. Even then, keep your columbine plants well-watered during dry spells.
Feed this perennial bloomer twice per month with Watters Flower Power to extend their bloom cycle. This will encourage thick foliage and bright flowers.
Columbine has deep roots and not easy to lift and divide. If you must divide, dig down as deeply as possible in a circle around each plant, pull it up without breaking the soil ball, and divide it quickly with a sharp instrument. Retain as much of the soil around the roots as possible, and replant quickly. Water in thoroughly with Watters Root & Grow to reduce transplant shock and stimulate new root formation.
Propagating from collected seeds is easier. After the flower petals have dried up, harvest the ripened seed pods left inside, and break them open to collect the shiny black seeds. Store in the refrigerator over winter, then plant them in the garden the following spring.
Varieties of Columbine
Varieties of columbine include dwarf varieties that are just 6 inches tall and large varieties, such as McKana’s Giants, that are more than 3′ feet tall with large flowers. Keep in mind that Aquilegia varieties readily cross-pollinate. If you plant more than one variety, be prepared to see new colors and combinations. A small fraction of Columbine varieties include:
- Aquilegia – Crimson Star features long-spurred, crimson red flowers and blooms for four to six weeks in late spring to early summer.
- Aquilegia – McKana grows long-spurred, bi-colored flowers that can be blue and white, red and yellow or other color combinations; it blooms in the late spring to early summer.
- Aquilegia – Rocky Mountain columbine features fern-like foliage grayish-green in color and blooms for four to six weeks in the late spring and early summer. The flowers have violet-blue sepals, white petals, and yellow stamens.
- Aquilegia – Songbird blooms with long-spurred blue and white flowers that are up to 3 inches long.
Toxicity of Columbine
The seeds and roots of columbine plants contain cardiogenic toxins that can cause severe gastrointestinal symptoms and heart palpitations if consumed in large amounts. However, the taste is unpleasant, so humans or other animals rarely consume it in large enough quantities to be dangerous.
Encourage additional flowering by deadheading the plant regularly to get rid of faded blooms. If you wish to avoid self-seeding, cut back the foliage and seedpods in the fall months.
Growing From Seeds
It’s not hard to grow columbine flowers from seeds, but be aware that they usually do not blossom until year two. Additionally, the seeds need a three- to four-week cold spell before germination will occur, which you can ensure by keeping the seed packets in the refrigerator before sowing.
Plant your columbine seed in moist soil in a warm, sunny indoor location. It takes seeds about 30 days to germinate. Once the seedlings develop a pair of true leaves and have reached 3-4 inches tall, transplant them outside.
Common Pests/ Diseases
Columbine plants are susceptible to leaf miners, a pest that can disfigure the leaves but rarely kills the plant. Aphids are a lesser problem and both treatable with Watters Triple Action or Multi-Purpose Insect Spray.
Foliage usually declines by mid-summer, at which point it should be cut to the ground.
Companion Plants with Columbine for a Stunning Backyard
Arizona Gaillardia – The perfect mountain perennial with huge fiery flowers on a compact plant. She loves the heat and super drought hardy. You can count on this bloomer to show off all summer long in raised beds, containers, or directly in the ground. Javelina and rabbit proof, this bloomer is a ‘must-have.’ Arizona plant.
Perfume Lilac – The fragrance will remind you of visits to Grandmother’s house. A truly outstanding lilac for the large flowers and captivating fragrance, and super easy to grow. She is in a class by herself even in the hottest of sun locations. If fact, the more sun she receives the more flowers you will have.
Purple Twist Plum – This AZ plum is the ideal small purple tree between evergreens. Blooms in a profusion of pink flowers that precede the deep purple foliage. Large enough to use as a front yard tree, and behaved enough to use as a street tree. Plant pairs flanking gateways, driveways or in orchard like rows to screen a view of neighbors.
White Nite Candytuft – Masses of fragrant white blooms cover mounds of green foliage. Extreme heat and cold tolerant, this award-winner repeatedly blooms without deadheading for super easy care. Butterflies, Bees and Hummingbirds are going to love your backyard again.