Also called Columbine, most varieties display distinctive spurs but what really distinguishes this wildflower is its nearly infinite colour gamut and its blend of exotic yet delicate charm.
Like a chorus girl that marries into the aristocracy, the Columbine is but a common wildflower that has made itself a multiple recipient of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. It is a herbaceous perennial that is self-seeding and – to its greater merit – ‘self-hybridising.’ This is because it cross-pollinates and inter-breeds. So if you end up growing these lovely plants, consider not deadheading them all, instead letting them go to seed – and then take pleasure in the new strains, shapes, and hues that adorn your garden the following year!
Variously described as ‘beautiful’ and ‘stunning,’ yet also as a ‘shy’ ‘cottage garden’ denizen, the Columbine is self-evidently many things to many people. A major reason for that is that it is ‘many things;’ consider the diversity of its flowers: pendent or upward, single versus double, bonnets and stars, and even spurred against spurless. They also display quite some variance in plant size.
The larger species sprawl out to 75 centimetres or more in diameter and grow to be as tall; Aquilegia vulgaris or the Common Columbine reaches a full metre in height. However, dwarf cultivars are petite and are ideal for compact spaces. Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Nana’ grows to only 25 centimetres and Aquilegia buergeriana ‘Calimero’ not even to 20 centimetres.
Notwithstanding such diversity, for the most part the flowers have five sepals and five petals, and even five pistils.
Aquilegia flowers are not only visual delights for you and I; they are magnets for honey-bees, bumble-bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Hence, a bed or two of Columbine will add an extra layer of nature’s beauty to your garden. With about 70 species and many more hybridised cultivars to choose from – and with such a profusion of floral ‘styles’ at that – you’ll be spoilt for choice.
Belying its delicate and exotic blooms, Columbines are one of the plant world’s good sports; these low-maintenance charmers get by on the most basic care and are not particularly picky about soil and growing conditions. This quality makes them especially suitable for casual gardeners with limited time.
Background and Origins
Great Britain’s native species of this plant, Aquilegia vulgaris, decorate illuminated manuscripts dating back to the 13th century but that’s far from all.
Aquilegia as a genus was a great favourite of mediaeval illustrators and monks who made the flower a centrepiece of their illuminated manuscripts, and that by the score. For example, the Isabella Breviary, Flemish, 1497, and the Saint Dominic illuminated manuscript, Flemish, circa 1515.
To quote ourselves, this flower is “many things to many people” but it even meant wildly contrasting things to the ancients. Consider that the flower reminded some of that ferocious bird of prey, the eagle, and to others it resembled that emblem of peace, the dove! For the word Aquilegia is rooted in aquil, eagle in Latin, whereas Columbine stems from columbinus, meaning ‘dove-like’ in Latin. So do the flower’s spurs look like an eagle’s talon or do they look like doves feeding from a dish?
These wildflowers, having decorated meadow and plain, hillside and riverside in temperate and cool regions for centuries, now adorn innumerable gardens. One can hardly cover all the many Columbine species, hybrids, and cultivars.
Even though it is difficult to select ‘the best’ – if one may use the term – herewith our idiosyncratic ‘Top Ten’ list in alphabetical order.
Our favourites are not intended to make for a representative and varied list; each entry is chosen solely on its own merit.
- Aquilegia alpina: The classic Columbine wildflower, alpina has pendent, droopy, spurred flowers with eye-pulling yet soothing shades ranging from deep blue to deep purple.
- Aquilegia atrata: A pendent maroon-black flower with velvety petals and pronounced spurs, this is one of the smokiest and sultriest of Aquilegias.
- Aquilegia ‘Crimson Star’: Lush red petals, two-toned corolla, and a brush of golden stamens make this upward-facing star-shaped cultivar possibly the most sensuous variety.
- Aquilegia flabellata var. pumila: While the upward-facing star-shaped flower is delicate it is of a striking purple hue that is so rich and appealing as to hold the eye on its own.
- Aquilegia formosa: Pendent, with spurs projecting upward and yellow stamens downward, the vermilion and buttercup colour combination radiates a warm glow.
- Aquilegia Songbird ‘Dove’: Upward-facing, long-spurred, and pure, snowy white, this cultivar exudes simple elegance – it is an understated showstopper.
- Aquilegia ‘Strawberry Ice Cream’: A delightful pendent cup with two-toned pleated petals that really have a strawberry ice-cream shade – blent with vanilla.
- Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Black Barlow’: Just about the most dramatic cultivar, upward-facing and fully double, the stiff, burgundy-black petals catch – and hold – the eye.
- Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Ruby Port’: Somewhat unusual in being fully double yet pendent, the rich ‘ruby port’ shade of its petals makes a stunning contrast with light green foliage.
- Aquilegia x hybrida, ‘Blue Star’: An upward-facing flower with bluish-purple petals and a white corolla, this is one of the loveliest and most sweetly charming of Columbines.
Feeding, Care & Growing Tips
Aquilegia are remarkably unfussy and sporting plants, with most varieties making do with whatever they get. However, to get the best out of your plants tailor the growing conditions to their liking.
They prefer rich soil; humus or loam mixed with sand or chalk is best but dense clay is to be avoided. The soil should not be allowed to dry out and should be kept moist but it must drain well. The ideal pH range is 6.0 to 7.0 though a ±1 swing will be perfectly acceptable to your sporting Columbine.
In temperate zones twice-weekly watering is sufficient but in warm climates or during hot weather more frequent watering may be necessary.
Most varieties do well without any fertilizer; that said, feeding your plant with water-soluble 5-10-5 fertilizer will result in lusher foliage and brighter, healthier blooms.
Though most Columbines do just fine in full sun, most do even better in dappled sun or partial shade. Plant them close to taller plants in sunny climes.
In late June when the flowering season is over, cut off the stalks; this will allow the leaves to more effectively replenish the plant’s energy stores. In October or November cut back the foliage too; come winter, fresh new growth will appear.
In USDA zone 3 or lower, you should consider mulching your plants with hay, straw, or an organic mulch at the end of Autumn as a precaution against frost and freezing.
Habitat & Growing Conditions
Woodlands, riversides, hillsides, and meadows in the temperate and cool regions of the Northern Hemisphere are the favoured habitats of Aquilegia. The plants are further inclined to dappled sun, as on the rim of a woods, or partial shade, as near the base of a rocky outcropping. While some Aquilegia fare well in dry soil, the greater part thrive in moist, well-drained soils.
The majority of Aquilegias are hardy in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8 with a few pushing the upper zone to 9 and a few with their lower bound at zone 4.
Columbine season is from late spring to early summer, between the early spring bulbs and the summer flowering season.
For many plants, pruning is a ‘best practices’ requirement but for Aquilegia it is more of an optional, strategic decision.
On an ongoing basis, you can pinch off dead flowers or snip them where the flower stalk meets the stem.
Soon after the initial bloom cycle you can cut the stems to their respective halfway points and trim some of the foliage. Not only will this improve the plants’ appearance, but it may also induce a welcome second round of blooms in early summer. Remember, though, to sterilise your secateurs with diluted rubbing alcohol before pruning.
After any second bloom or before the end of summer, say in July, prune the plant down to its basal leaves; these are the larger leaves that issue from the main stem just above the soil. This pruning will redirect nutrients to the roots instead of to unproductive stems, thereby building resources for the following year. A side-benefit is that if the plant is troubled by leaf miners or other pests you get rid of the infestation as well.
Deadheading is a special form of pruning, having to do with prompt removal of spent blooms. If you want to deadhead, cut terminal flowers about 0.75 centimetres above the leaves below it. Cut lateral flowers where their stalk joins the main stem if the main stem has blooms further up the main stem, but if not then cut off the main stem itself at a point just below where the spent bloom’s stalk joins it.
When the initial flowering cycle ends, you can deadhead by cutting off the stems to their respective halfway points.
The question, though, is, why should you deadhead Aquilegia?
The first reason is to prevent inter-pollinated self-seeding, should you so wish, by this happily inter-fertile genus – if you would rather have established species and cultivars in your garden instead of random and unpredictable new strains, then you would deadhead.
The second reason is to enhance plant vitality as it will result in bigger blooms the following year, and also to increase its productive lifespan as plant resources will not be spent on producing seeds.
A happy compromise might be to deadhead somewhat more than 50 percent of the flowers after the second or last bloom cycle while letting the rest go to seed. Because Columbines tend to wither and die in about four years, you may wish to take advantage of its propensity to self-seed.
Where To Buy Aquilegia
Aquilegia are widely available at garden centres and at nurseries, both the brick-and-mortar and the cyberspace kind. They are sold as plants in containers and pots. Seeds are economical, widely available, and easy to grow.
Though you will find established and popular varieties such as those of the Songbird series, Star series, State series, and the vulgaris cultivars, plants bearing flowers of new and one-of-a-kind shapes and sizes, can be seen as one-offs at some nurseries.
Remember that if you already have Aquilegia then you can ‘buy’ this plant from home by division (or separation). It is not easy but quite possible.
Choose a big, spread-out clump in early spring and dig very deeply in a circle all around the roots. Pull up the plant with the soil around the roots, divide the roots with a sterilised sharp knife, leaving as much soil as you can around the roots, and replant promptly. Apply a mulch of compost around the divided plants. Note that divided Aquilegia may take some time to gain vitality.
You can divide an Aquilegia plant every other year.
Common Diseases & Problems
This generally healthy and trouble-free plant has but two ‘enemies:’ powdery mildew and leaf miners.
Powdery mildew attacks Columbine when it is wet and rainy or when you have warm days and cool nights. To combat it, cut off the affected parts of the plant, doing so to a couple of centimetres from soil level if need be. Give the plant plenty of sun and ample air circulation to help it avoid another bout of powdery mildew.
If you see a leaf-miner infestation, you can wait until the blooms are spent before cutting down and destroying affected parts of the plant or you may do so immediately. If you decide to wait for the blooms to finish, then, in the meantime spray or swab the infestation with a one-percent solution of Neem Oil or with a solution of Azadirachtin, which is a readymade Neem extract.
Frequently Asked Questions
How should I sow aquilegia seeds?
Aquilegia seeds need moisture, cool temperatures, and light to germinate. Therefore, you need to cover these three bases one way or another. You can prep your seeds by putting them with some potting mix that includes vermiculite in a fridge, otherwise you may plant the seeds in a pot provided it is kept at a temperature of 15 to 20 degrees centigrade. The pot may have potting mix or seed compost but it should have a layer of vermiculite at the top to trap in moisture.
Whether you sow prepped or ‘unprepped’ seeds, push them gently only partway in the soil leaving them partially uncovered because germination requires light. Do not ‘drown’ the seeds by watering over them; simply keep the pot in a tray of water, making sure that the drainage hole at the base of the pot is unobstructed. Sprinkle water around the edges.
Are aquilegia poisonous to cats?
All parts of Aquilegia are poisonous to cats and any cat that has consumed any Aquilegia should immediately be taken to the vet. The highest concentrations of toxins are present in roots and seeds and these are toxic not only to cats, but also to dogs, horses, and humans, although they are especially poisonous to cats. The toxins are cardiogenic which means that they disrupt the normal activity of the heart muscle.
When do aquilegia flower?
As any number of sites parrot, Aquilegias flower after the early spring bulbs and before the peak flowering season. Basically, this means May. However, in warmer climates, some Aquilegias may flower in late April. If you prune your plants then they may well flower again in the summer.
Keep in mind that if you grow Aquilegias from seeds, they will flower on their second year.
What should I do with aquilegia after flowering?
It depends on what your intentions are. If you wish to preserve the vitality, and increase the lifespan, of the plant or if you do not want your Aquilegias to self-seed after cross-pollination and, thereby, grow new and unpredictable hybrids, then you should deadhead the plant.
Otherwise, if you would like to see new and unexpected strains of Aguilegia decorating your garden the following year, do not deadhead or deadhead about 50 percent of the spent blooms. See preceding section Deadheading Aquilegia for details.
Will the plant flower twice?
It very well may if you prune the plant – but no guarantees! The trick in making Columbine flower again that same season is to give it a good ‘haircut’ after the initial flowering cycle. See preceding section Pruning Aquilegia for details.
What are the best plants to grow with aquilegia?
You may have seen this question ‘answered’ on many a site but it is a red herring of a question and the answers, therefore, are of little value. The reason is that Aquilegia is so exceptionally varied a genus (refer to the earlier sub-head Infinite Variety) that plant x may go very well with and complement a particular species, hybrid, or cultivar of Columbine while it may equally well look out of place, clash, or compete, with another species, hybrid, or cultivar.
The valid question would run along the lines of “What are the best plants to grow with ‘Black Barlow’ and similar varieties?” You will at once realize that plants that would go well with, set off, or complement ‘Black Barlow’ may well not work alongside Aquilegia formosa or ‘Blue Star.’