Columbine Flowers: Just the Facts

Hawkish or Dovish, They're Not "for the Birds"

Yellow columbine flower.
David Beaulieu

Columbine flowers are said to resemble jester's caps, and their effectiveness at attracting hummingbirds will certainly put bird watchers in a merry mood. Find out what types to grow, how to care for them, and how to use them in the landscape.

Botany of Columbine Flowers

Plant taxonomy classifies columbine plants as Aquilegia. For instance, Aquilegia canadensis is the red columbine. But there are a number of different species and cultivars. This flower is in the buttercup family, as are such popular landscape plants as Clematis.

Columbine plants are herbaceous perennials.

Qualities of Columbine Plants, Some of the Different Types

Columbines come in many colors; some are even bicolored. 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.

What makes the flowers of this genus so interesting is the presence (on most, but not all kinds) of so-called "spurs." The spurs are those long, narrow strips streaming horizontally out of the back of the flower.

Other than A. canadensis, species include:

  • A. alpina (blue flowers)
  • A. caerulea (blue flowers)
  • A. chrysantha (golden flowers)
  • A. flabellata (Nana is one of the best cultivars; standing just 6 to 9 inches tall, this is a white-flowering dwarf)
  • A. vulgaris (commonly called "Granny's bonnet," and so popular that many cultivars are based on it)

If you admire long, graceful spurs on your columbine flowers, avoid A. vulgaris, since this kind is known for its small spurs.

Cultivars include:

  • A. vulgaris var. stellata Black Barlow (one of the darkest blooms)
  • A. vulgaris Clementine Rose (double, pink, upward-facing flowers)
  • A. vulgaris Clementine Salmon-Rose (salmon-colored, upward-facing blooms that look like the blossoms on a double-flowered clematis)
  • A. vulgaris Leprechaun Gold (variegated leaves: gold and green)
  • A. vulgaris Magpie, William Guiness (bicolored: dark purple and white)

Planting Zones, Sun and Soil Needs

Grow columbine plants in planting zones 3 to 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 (A. formosa), to Europe (A. vulgaris), and to Asia (A. flabellata ), as well.

There are plenty of exceptions, but partial shade is the standard recommendation for columbine plants (they can stand more sun in the North). 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 Features 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. On many kinds, besides their trademark spurs, the flowers nod their heads down, and their centers 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.

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 to 2 feet. Mulch the plants to conserve water in summer.

Otherwise, care for these perennials largely comes down to the question of whether 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. In fact, many gardeners save money by starting the plants from seed rather than buying them at the nursery in pots (although you will have to wait a year for flowers). 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. 

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 (especially on A. vulgaris) 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.