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All About Columbine

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By Marianne Willburn, gardening expert, landscape designer and writer.

It’s a delight to watch people discovering a Columbine flower for the first time. The delicate, outer-worldly quality of the bi-colored, long spurred blossoms invites comment, touch and discussion. Why are the spurs so long? Are the blossoms always multi-colored? Is that a columbine growing up through that paving stone over there? Are they really deer resistant?

Wait till you tell your guests that these lovely flowers are native, grow well in dappled-shade situations and are major hummingbird magnets – you’ll soon be asked for one or two of the rattling seed heads when the season slows down.

Unusual flowers, versatile plant

The Latin genus name for Columbineaquilegia – comes from the Latin root for ‘eagle,’ and describes the long spurs on the back of the flower that hide the nectaries and almost resemble claws. Not all Columbines have extremely long spurs, but there is some form of spur on most species that reside in this genus – even on the ruffled, compact blossoms of the European Granny’s bonnet (A. vulgaris). Many hybrids are bred for not only their color, but the length of their spurs, and the fascinating combinations are endless.

Color combinations involve both the sepals and the petals themselves, which to the untrained eye look just like double bi-colored blossoms. That’s the fun of Columbine – the variation in those blossoms allow the gardener to match them with so many other colors in the garden, either providing great contrast or great color themes.

The soft, sometimes blue-green foliage is a very early riser in the sleepy spring garden, and can act as a terrific background for spring bulbs such as tulips. Growing between 1-3’ high (and in dwarf varieties, much smaller), it’s a great choice for the front of a sunny border in cooler climates, and an excellent choice for those who garden in shady or woodland settings with dappled light.

Tips for growing the best Columbine on the block

Columbine is not a fussy plant (as evidenced by those random seedlings you often see poking out of corners in the garden), but there are a few things you can do to make sure they not only grow, but thrive:

  • Make sure that your ‘dappled shade’ has plenty of ‘dappled’ and not too much ‘shade.’ Columbine needs light to flower well.
  • If you’re in a climate with a hotter summer, site Columbine to take advantage of afternoon shade.
  • If you don’t wish to stake your plants, do not overfeed Columbine. Though they like rich soils, they also grow well in average ones, and will remain bushier if light levels are relatively high and soils are not too fat.
  • Water evenly during the first year. Once established, Columbine is more tolerant of occasional drought conditions.
  • Cut the foliage to the ground after flowering to rejuvenate the foliage which may be marked with tunnels from leaf miners. Throw that foliage away – don’t compost it.
  • Resist the urge to divide your plants if you can help it. Columbine don’t enjoy the process and may sulk for a full year.

Columbine: A Notorious Seeder

For those who love to watch the natural process of cross-breeding in the garden and select their own ‘strains,’ Columbine is the plant for you. If you have more than one variety in your garden, you are likely to have several more interesting color combinations via seedlings in time.

These seedlings are not always as attractive as the parents, but that’s where the process of human selection comes in. However, if you adore a specific variety or color combination, and want more of it, it’s a good idea to buy fresh plants or seed in the spring.

Columbine is generally not a long-lived perennial, lasting 2-4 years in the garden depending on species and conditions. But don’t worry, the abundant seed and ease with which new plants can be raised from seed means that once you’ve got it in your garden, you’re likely to have some form of it for many years to come.

Columbine for the birds and the bees

Though hummingbirds are often attracted to red flowers, Columbine seem to attract them no matter what the blossom color, and are one of the earliest sources of nectar in the spring garden. They are also visited by larger insect pollinators who have the right tools to delve for nectar at the bottom of those long spurs – such as the hawk moth or hummingbird moth. One of our North American native species, A. canadensis,, is a particular favorite of these pollinators with its yellow and red heads that guests never fail to comment upon.

I like to grow this native at the feet of other red-flowered plants that attract hummingbirds later in the season, such as 'Jacob Cline' Bee Balm (Monarda didyma). As the other plantings mature around it, I can leave the flowers to set seed in these sunny beds and don’t need to worry about the appearance of the plant. These seeds always seem to come true for me as they are a great distance away from other strains of Columbine that I grow.

About the Author: Marianne Willburn is a columnist, blogger and author of the new book "Big Dreams, Small Garden: Creating Something Extraordinary in Your Ordinary Space." Originally from California, she now gardens in Virginia – read more at

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