Friday, May 27, 2011

Curiously Columbine

A favorite in our spring garden is Aquilegia, more commonly known as columbine. A staple of the woodland garden where they grow naturally, columbine prefers a shady or partly shady location with rich humusy soil, but this prolific self-seeder has found its way into our sun gardens where it grows with equal enthusiasm.

Columbine blooms in a rainbow of colors: red, pink, white, blue, and purple, and less frequently, yellow. It's often a bi-color, usually with white. The blooms of some cultivars are held erect so the blossoms face you, while others droop almost bell-like, making it hard to see and photograph their delicate structures. All have a typical appearance with petals that have classic spur-like extensions and a sometimes honeycombed appearance to the center of the blossom when the inner petals are deeply curved. The stamens can be either understated or prominent and showy, depending on the variety.

The heavily lobed leaves grow in clumps, but since they are held on longish stems, they have an airy appearance. In the early spring garden, the leaves are a pretty blue-green to medium green backdrop for some of the later blooming spring daffodils and tulips.

As the larger summer perennials fill out, columbine takes a back seat to the showier larger-leafed hostas, salvia, coral bells, and other perennials and enjoys relative obscurity in the summer garden, providing just enough ground coverage to double as something of a ground cover and help keep weeds at bay.

Because it self-seeds with such abandon, and because the production of seeds saps the energy of the plants, it's a good idea to snip the stems after the blossoms begin to fade, letting only one or a few develop seeds which you can allow them to sow naturally or save to sow indoors or out yourself.
Like many plants that grow in northern climates, columbine seeds need to be cold stratified in order to germinate. That is, they need a period of several weeks of cold, wintry temperatures to stimulate spring germination. Storing them in a cold shed or garage over the winter for spring planting is a no fuss way to accomplish this, but they can also be tricked into germinating by cold stratifying them in your refrigerator for several weeks.

Just prior to fully opening, the buds resemble shooting stars or little rockets.
The inner petals are heavily cupped and give the classic honeycomb appearance to the center of this white columbine blossom.
A deep scarlet, this blossom has a creamy white center. This variety is one of the shorter cultivars, with the leaf mound about 6 inches tall and the blossom stems barely reaching a foot in total height.
Partially open bud.... the inner petals are squared off and a creamy white.

The fully open bloom.
The drooping form in the garden doesn't allow you to see the beauty of the deep royal blue blossoms..
The face of the royal blue blossom
This deep purple and white bicolor is one of the tallest plants, reaching nearly three feet, thrives in full sun in one of the perennial beds in the formal garden. The plant is shown below.
Like its royal blue cousin, the blooms of this purple coumbine face downward.

This red columbine, "Red Star" is medium height, about 2 feet, and like the taller royal blue, spreads prolifically throughout the garden.
Another dwarf variety that barely reaches 10 inches in height, with dark red blooms that cover the densely  mounded plant. I believe this plant is a hybrid that self-sowed from other cultivars in this bed.

Columbine makes an unusual cut flower display. Buds open poorly if at all once they've been cut, so choose newly opened blooms for an eye-catching bouquet that will last several days.  Here, the stems are gathered into a narrow bud vase.
Planting several varieties can have interesting results in subsequent years. Columbine hybridizes freely, so if you want a specific color, plant only that color. And since even that won't guarantee that they will all produce seeds that are "true" to the parent, snip the stems before seed pods form to encourage the plant to develop a healthier root system and leaf cap rather than putting its energy into seed production.

If you plant a variety of colors like we have, what you'll find when they bloom next spring will be anyone's guess. Fortunately we enjoy surprises and the dwarf solid red is one of those surprises.

Definitely the result of self-sowing (it was growing along the edge of the bed in the midst of the ground cover), I moved it to a spot where it would have room to grow and develop. I was surprised when it developed into such a petite plant, covered with small, perfectly formed, solid red double blooms, unlike any other columbine in the garden.

I plan to let this plant produce a stalk or two of seeds to sow in the house next winter, hoping that some will produce more of these lovely compact plants. They would make the perfect accompaniment to the dwarf white rhododendrons we have along the walkway to the shade garden.


  1. I love aquilegias and used to have them, but they don't hybridize freely in this climate and need a lot of nurturing so I'll just have to enjoy yours instead.

  2. Ahhhh! These are a favorite of mine for sure and yours pictured here are just gorgeous! I love the blue colors in particular.

    The first time I ever saw Columbine was way up in the north woods of Wisconsin near Lake Superior...a red variety grew wild there and it was always a special treat to run across it on a hike.

  3. This is a pretty impressive show of blooms. The columbine is so varied and the colors so pretty.

  4. What a great tribute to columbine! All the colors in your garden are lovely. I only have a few, but I am inspired to add more.

  5. I too love the little red columbine that you are growing! Do you think it is a new hybrid or cultivar? I think that would be exciting! Thanks for sharing the lovely pictures. I just have two purple columbines in my garden now but I really like them as the blossoms are doubles.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for dropping by to see our columbine. Yes, I do think that the dwarf red is a spontaneous hybrid. I never planted seeds - all of our columbine were purchased as plants and I always chose plants that were in bloom so I could select the colors, naively expecting them to come back true to the originals each spring (which many do).

    Whether this particular cultivar has hybridized in anyone else's garden, I couldn't say for sure, but since these plants seem to cross breed so randomly and freely if the conditions are right, I rather think it's likely.

    However, I do plan to let a couple of stalks go to seed and see what, if anything, grows from them. Some plants do produce sterile flowers when they hybridize, but we'll see what happens. Stay tuned next spring for an update! ;)

  7. What a fantastic collection of aquiligia. Unfortunately all ours are over here in London. The strange weather we have been having has done for them.

    They were blooming at the Chelsea Flower Show and I bought some Blue Star seeds in the hope that they come true to form for next year!

  8. I hope your seeds do come true. I am well aware that while I am going to save seeds from my red double, they may not come true when I plant them indoors over the winter. In fact, I may not get any reds from it. Depends on whether the bees did the job and pollinated it from itself, or whether it's been pollinated by one of the others.

    A more reliable method would have been for me to do the pollination myself.... maybe next year! I'm still learning about all of this plant breeding stuff.

    That said, the remaining plants on the island where the red is growing all opened buds yesterday and they are all doubles.... not all what I planted there!

    This is the third year they have been growing there and they were all singles, all originally "Spring Magic" variety. I'll post some images later today.


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