Columbine Plant Profile

Columbine flower

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Columbine flowers are said to resemble jester's caps, and their effectiveness at attracting hummingbirds will certainly put bird watchers in a merry mood. This perennial is an airy plant whose attractive foliage is clover-like when young. The flowers come in many colors and most have spurs, which are long, narrow strips streaming horizontally out of the back of the flower. 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.

Botanical Name Aquilegia
Common Name Columbine
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 1 to 3 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide on average
Sun Exposure Full sun to part sun
Soil Type Average, medium moisture, well-draining
Soil pH 6 to 7
Bloom Time Spring to summer
Flower Color Red, orange, yellow, blue, purple, pink, white
Hardiness Zones 3 to 9
Native Area Meadows, woodlands, slopes, and cliffs throughout the northern hemisphere
columbine flowers used in a garden
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault 
Columbine flowers
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

How to Grow Columbine

When you bring your plant back from the garden center, remember to plant 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, their spacing will generally be one to two feet. Mulch the plants to conserve water in the 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.

Light

There are plenty of exceptions, but partial shade is the standard recommendation for columbine plants (they can stand more sun in the North).

Soil

Grow them in the 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.

Water

Columbine likes a moderate amount of soil moisture, so plan to water when the top inch or two of soil dries out. As young plants are becoming established, make sure to keep the soil evenly moist but never soggy.

Temperature and Humidity

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.

Fertilizer

Use a liquid fertilizer once a month during the growing season (spring to fall). This will promote healthy foliage and better blooming.

Common Pests and Diseases

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 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.

Varieties of Columbine

Columbines come in many colors; some are even bicolored. These perennials can have red, yellow, white, blue, pink, salmon, or purple blossoms.

Their height will vary depending upon growing conditions and upon the particular type in question. But, on average, they reach around two feet in height (taller when in full bloom) by a similar width. They bloom in late spring to early summer.

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 six to nine 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)
Pink columbine flowers
Clive Nichols / Getty Images
purple and white columbine
 skhoward / Getty Images
yellow columbine or Granny's Bonnet
Jacky Parker / Getty Images