Columbine Flowers

Are You Hawkish or Dovish?

Image of yellow columbine flower.
David Beaulieu

Taxonomy, Botany of Columbine Flowers

Plant taxonomy classifies columbine plants, in general, as Aquilegia. For instance, Aquilegia canadensis is the red columbine. But there are a number of different species and cultivars (see below). This flower is in the buttercup family.

Columbine plants are herbaceous flowering perennials.

Qualities of Columbine Plants, Some of the Different Types

Columbines come in many colors; some are even bi-colored.

These perennials can have red, yellow, white, blue, pink, salmon, or purple blossoms. They are airy plants with attractive foliage (clover-like when young).

Their height will vary depending upon growing conditions and upon the particular type in question. But, on average, they reach around 2 feet in height (taller when in full bloom) by a similar width. They bloom in late spring to early summer and self-seed readily if you do not deadhead them.

What makes the flowers of this genus so interesting is the presence (on most, but not all kinds) of so-called "spurs." What do these spurs look like? In the photo provided, take a look at the right side of the flower. Do you see those long, narrow strips running horizontally? Those are the spurs.

Other than A. canadensis, types include (all are cold-hardy to USDA zone 3):

  1. A. alpina (blue flowers).
  2. A. vulgaris var. stellata 'Black Barlow' (one of the darkest blooms).
  1. A. vulgaris 'Clementine Salmon-Rose' (salmon-colored blooms that lack spurs and look like the blossoms on a double-flowered clematis).
  2. A. vulgaris 'Magpie' (bicolored: dark purple edged with white).
  3. A. flabellata 'Nana' (standing just 6-9 inches tall, this is a white-flowering dwarf).

Planting Zones, Sun and Soil Requirements

Grow columbine plants in planting zones 3-9.

There are columbine flowers native to many lands. A. canadensis, for instance, is native to the woods of eastern North America. It is a wildflower often remarked upon by hikers for its bluish-green foliage. But there are types native to the Western United States, to Europe, and to Asia, as well.

There are plenty of exceptions, but "partial shade" is the standard recommendation for columbine plants. Grow them in well-drained ground, and try to mix some compost into the soil. Often living on rocky ledges in the wild, the drought resistance displayed by such columbine flowers as A. canadensis makes them good candidates for xeriscaping.

Problems, Outstanding Characteristics for This Perennial

The leaves of columbine plants often bear the "doodling" of leaf miners, the larvae of a kind of insect. But the damage usually is not serious and gives the foliage a sort of randomly "variegated" look that may be appealing to some gardeners. If this is your opinion, there is no need to take action against the leaf miners. There are plenty of insects that do greater damage to plants in your landscaping that you should concentrate your pest-control efforts on, instead.

If you really feel the need to control leaf miners, keep an eye out for the first signs of doodling.

Once you spot any, just inspect the leaves for the larvae and crush them with your fingers. Other than this minor issue, the perennial is subject to few problems. 

For gardeners who truly dislike the doodling done by leaf miners, this pest problem is, nonetheless, more than offset by the positive characteristics of the plant. Because columbine has colorful flowers, it gives your yard a lot of interest in spring. But of greater or equal value is the odd shape of columbine flowers. Besides their trademark "spurs," columbine flowers nod their heads down, and their centers sometimes take on a honeycomb look. Another good feature is that columbine is among the easy-to-grow plants.

Uses in Landscaping, How to Care for The Plants

Once established, columbine plants are drought-tolerant perennials. This makes them perfect for rock gardens or woodland gardens.

Their attractive foliage suits them to use as edging plants. They have also frequently been used in cottage gardens.. 

Columbine flowers are said to resemble jester's caps, and their effectiveness at attracting hummingbirds will certainly put bird watchers in a merry mood.

When you bring your plant back from the garden center, remember to plant it so as to keep it at the same depth in the ground as it was in its pot. A deeper planting could result in crown rot. If you are installing multiple plants, spacing will generally be 1-2 feet.

Care for these perennials largely comes down to the question, "To deadhead or not to deadhead?" If you do not deadhead, the resulting seed production will sap the strength of your columbine plants, and they will decline and die out in about three years. But there is a tradeoff. Columbine flowers are great reseeders. Not deadheading will result in plenty of replacements. If, on the other hand, you do not wish for your perennial to spread, then you have a second reason to deadhead. Another care tip you can use to help your columbine to perform at its best is to mulch the plants, so as to conserve water in summer.

Interesting Facts: Origin of the Common Name, Latin Name

The scientific name, Aquilegia (the genus name) comes from the Latin word for eagle, Aquila. It is easy to understand this word origin: The spurs can remind one of the outstretched talons of an eagle or hawk.

The hawkish origin of the scientific name is, however, somewhat at odds with the origin of the common name, "columbine" (from the Latin, columba), which refers to doves. Apparently, some find a resemblance in the inverted columbine flower to five doves nestled together.