The Beauty of Columbines
Columbines are a delightful addition to the perennial garden. Forming an upright plant with fine lacy foliage, this plant is a favourite of many gardeners. Columbines bloom for many weeks in late May and early June. They have very interesting and highly decorated blooms. Whether they are purple, white, red, or yellow in colour, many columbine blooms resemble fancy bonnets. Columbines are perfect for an informal, woodland or cottage-style garden where it does not matter if plants change their location or self-seed thereby introducing a brand new colour. Even the name seems to fit a more natural garden style. The word columbine comes from Latin meaning dove. Earlier gardeners thought that columbine flowers resembled a cluster of doves.
Columbines are well loved because they are so easy to grow. Just give them a slightly well drained, sandy (or gravely) site and they will be happy. They are even adaptable to different soil pH and can tolerate anything from slightly alkaline to slightly acidic. A garden location that has full sun is best for lots of blooms but partial shade will also suit them.
The flowers of columbines are very distinctive with their bell-shape and varying spur lengths. Many colour variations of yellow, purple, white, pink, orange, and red can be found among the group. For some of these colours, both single and double blooms are available. Interestingly, long-spurred flowers orient their blooms upward while short-spurred types are nodding (facing down). Columbine flowers are actually made of two parts. The sepals are the outer structures that flare out at the open end. These sepals are usually brightly coloured. The real petals (there are five) are the inner flower structures. These extend upwards and end in the nectar spurs. The attractive, but often scent-less columbine flowers bloom for 2-4 weeks in early summer. To prolong this blooming time and prevent self-seeding, remove the spent flowers.
There are many types of columbines native to Europe, North America and Asia. Alpine types from the Rockies are great for the rock garden because they only grow to 10 cm tall. Our native columbine with its scarlet flowers grows to reach 60 cm and the new hybrid columbines are dramatic in the middle of the perennial garden at 1 metre tall.
One of the most beloved of our native wildflowers is the wild Canada columbine. These are the delicate orange-red and lemon-yellow blooming plants found along the sunny edges of woods. Other common names for this plant include meeting-houses, or honeysuckle. Botanically, it is called Aquilegia canadensis and can be found growing from Eastern Canada to Florida and also in New Mexico. Fern-like dark green leaves are at the base of the plant while downward-facing blooms with medium spurs are at the top. This plant is tolerant of full sun if there’s plenty of moisture. It is also tolerant of excessive heat if some shade is provided. Hummingbirds love these flowers because of their long nectar spurs. This is one of the few columbines that will come true to seed every year.
One of the most interesting columbines is called Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Nora Barlow’. Many call this plant “Granny’s Bonnet” because of the layers of petals in the flower. This columbine has short, spurred blooms that face downward. It is a curious, but much loved cultivar of the original European columbines. This plant has double flowers made up of many narrow, greenish sepals and pink petals without any spurs. The flowers must be tilted upward to really see their true beauty.
Another favourite columbine is Aquilegia ‘Crimson Star’ which has long spurs and a rich crimson red colour on the outside with white petals in the centre. This columbine, like others with long spurs, turns its blooms upward toward the viewer. Aquilegia ‘McKana’s Giants’ is another long-spurred columbine with large blooms. This columbine has a mixture of outer sepal colours and inner petals that are either white or yellow.
Aquilegia caerulea (Rocky Mountain Columbine) is the state flower of Colorado. It is spectacular in its native habitat blooming along the mountain roadsides in brilliant blue and white. Even though the plants are short-lived, they are worth the effort to start from seed. The upright plants grow best in rich soils.
Green flowers seem very strange in a world full of brilliant colour. Anyway, Aquilegia viridiflora is a columbine from Russia and western China that has nodding, fragrant blooms that have green sepals and purplish brown petals. This is one plant to see in person to really appreciate its unusual beauty.
A columbine called ‘Woodside Variegated Mixed’ is a Victorian era plant from the 19th century. It was re-introduced and is outstanding because of the two types of yellow variegation on the leaves. Some plants have pure yellow leaves while others have yellow mottling and streaks. Large white, pink or purple blooms crown these plants in the summer.
Columbines are clump-forming perennials that are not long-term residents in the garden. Consequently, growing a few new plants from seed every few years is wise. Seed can be sown indoors during the winter or outdoors directly into the garden. Sow the seed indoors in a shallow pot and place it in the refrigerator for 3 weeks. Do not cover the seed as it needs light to germinate. Outdoors scatter the seed lightly on the surface of the soil in the fall. Many columbines self-seed and hybridize freely in the garden. Just let these seedlings bloom and remove the colours you don’t like.
There are two major pests of columbines in Southern Ontario. One is the columbine leaf miner that makes a meandering path through plant leaves. The mined areas are white as a result of the chlorophyll being removed from the leaf. Chemical controls are very difficult since these insects are very well protected inside the leaf. Remove all infected leaves during the summer and clean up all plant debris in the fall. This is an unsightly problem that occurs with most columbines every year. The damage done by the columbine leaf miner looks worse than it really is.
The other pest is a caterpillar that occasionally takes a liking to the fern-like foliage of columbines. The columbine skipper is a purplish butterfly and its green larvae chews holes in plant leaves. They will even hide, very well protected, in rolled up leaves.
Columbines have an innocent old-fashioned charm about them. Whether they are single or double, they add so much to the garden in many ways. It’s a great day when new colours start blooming in the garden from plants grown by seed.