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How to Grow: Columbine
Learn about growing columbines including information on varieties.
Listen to podcast:
Aquilegia spp and hybrids
Part sun, part shade
Bloom Period and Seasonal Color
Spring in colors such as white, yellow, blue, purple, red, orange, and bi colors
Mature Height x Spread
1 to 3 feet x 6 to 24 inches
Native, attracts beneficials, attracts hummingbirds, drought tolerant, deer resistant
Often one of the first spring wildflowers to appear in our woodlands, columbine is a versatile plant. There are species and hybrid varieties that look equally at home in a wildflower meadow as well as the flower border. These perennial bloomers come in a wide range of colors. Their flowers float above the oval, fan-shaped foliage. The plants may only be short-lived perennials, but they do self-sow readily providing years of flower color. The flowers also cross easily so new plants may have different colors than the mother plants. I have wild plants naturally growing in rock ledges behind our house in part shade giving a good indication that columbine can thrive in dry, well-drained soil conditions.
Where, When and How to Plant
Columbines are hardy throughout New England. They’re easy to grow from seed directly sown in the garden or started indoors under grow lights 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost date. Columbine transplants are often available in garden centers as well. Plant in spring, after all danger of frost has passed, or summer on well drained soil in part sun or part shade. Species versions are more adapted to growing in the shade. Thin seedlings or space transplants one foot apart. Seed grown columbine may not bloom the first year in the garden.
Keep the soil moist, especially when growing hybrid columbines during the hot summer, to keep plants healthy. Mulch around the base of plants to maintain soil moisture and prevent weed growth. Apply a layer of compost in spring for fertilizer.
Regional Advice and Care
Species versions of columbine naturalize readily in part shaded woodlands or rocky ledges. Well-drained soil is a must. Deadhead spent flower stalks in late spring to tidy up the plants and prevent self-sowing, if you don’t want more seedlings. Mother plants will tend to die off after 3 to 4 years. Tunneling leaf miner insects can attack columbine foliage. Shear the plants after blooming and remove the foliage to eliminate this pest. The plant will regrow that summer, but not flower again.
Companion Planting and Design
Grow species in woodlands, wildflower patches, and rock gardens. In the garden, hybrid versions, with their larger, sometimes double and more colorful flowers, offer a nice transition from spring bulbs to spring flowering perennials. Columbine also make good cut flowers in arrangements.
The Canadian columbine is a wild species with red and yellow flowers. “Black Currant Ice” is a newer variety with nodding, purple and yellow flowers that grows 1 foot tall. “McKana Series” feature 2 to 3 foot tall plants with a mix of flower colors. The “Origami Series” has 1 to 2 foot tall plants that bloom longer than other hybrids. “Barlow Series” has unique, blue, red, or black-colored, shaggy, double flowers.
Excerpted from my book, New England Getting Started Garden Guide.
This common perennial’s latin name means eagle, for the spurs on the flowers. The common name also means dove, for when you flip over the flower looks like doves sitting around a fountain. What native wildflower is this? It’s aquilegia or columbine.
I love the wild Canadian columbine that sprouts up in our rocky ledges every spring. The red and yellow colors are showy against the rocks. Columbine are tough plants. They’re hardy to zone 3 and you’ll find different species of this native from Mexico to Canada. In garden centers, it’s the hybrids that stand out. Bred for larger sized flowers with different colors, hybrid columbines can put on a show in a perennial flower garden in early spring. Look for hybrids such as ‘McKana’ with its red, yellow and blue colored flowers, ‘Cameo’ with a mix of flower colors on 6 to 8 inch tall plants, and ‘Clementine’ for its double flowered blooms.
Plant columbine in full sun or part shade in our climate. They like a moist, rich, well-drained soil, just like in the forest. Most plants grow 1 to 2 feet tall and don’t like being divided. Deadhead spent flowers to prevent them from self-sowing, unless you want your columbine to naturally spread. Remember, though, that seedlings from hybrids will not come true to color and you’re likely to get one or two dominant colors next year.
Columbine have few pests, but one that’s very noticeable is the leaf miner. This fly lays an egg on the columbine leaves. The larvae tunnels between the walls of the leaf. If severe, the leaf will yellow and die. Pick off and destroy infected leaves and, for heavy infestations, cover the plants with a floating row cover until flowering.