How to Plant Columbine

Columbine flower

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Columbine (Aquilegia) blooms are said to resemble jester's caps, and their effectiveness at attracting hummingbirds will certainly put bird watchers in a merry mood. This herbaceous perennial is an airy plant with attractive clover-like foliage. The blooms come in many colors, and most have spurs: long, narrow strips streaming horizontally from the back of each bloom. They typically bloom for about four weeks, starting in mid-spring.

Columbines are short-lived plants, but if you let the flower heads go to seed rather then deadheading them, it will readily self-sow and might soon form a colony of plants when growing conditions are optimal. They have a moderate growth rate and seeds will germinate in about 20 to 30 days. You can start Columbine from seed or from potted plants in spring to early summer. Grow only from purchased, labelled seed, because most hybrids do not grow true to its parent from home-raised seed

Once established, columbine plants are drought-tolerant perennials. This makes them perfect for rock gardens and woodland gardens. Their attractive foliage makes them suitable as edging plants, and they are also frequently used in cottage gardens.

Botanical Name Aquilegia spp.
Common Name Columbine
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 1 to 3 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide
Sun Exposure Full sun to part sun
Soil Type Average, medium moisture, well-drained
Soil pH Neutral 7.0 to slightly acidic
Bloom Time Spring to summer
Bloom Color Red, orange, yellow, blue, purple, pink, white
USDA Hardiness Zones Zones 3 to 8
Habitat Meadows, woodlands, slopes, and cliffs
Native regions Columbine is native to many different regions: A. canadensis is native to the woods of eastern North America; A. formosa is native to the western United States; A. vulgaris is native to Europe, and A. flabellata is native to Asia
Toxicity Toxic to humans and horses
columbine flowers used in a garden
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault 
Columbine flowers
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Columbine Care

If you purchase Columbine plants in pots, plant them at the same depth in the ground as they are planted in their pots. Planting them any deeper could result in crown rot. Space plants one to two feet apart. Mulch the plants to conserve water in the summer.

One decision you need to make is whether or not to deadhead spent blooms If you do not deadhead, the resulting seed production takes energy away from the plants, and they will decline and die in about three years.

But there is a tradeoff. Columbines are great re-seeders. 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 self-sown replacements.

At the end of their season, cut Columbine stalks to the ground. Flower stalks will regrow next spring,along with any new plants that successfully self-seeded.

Sunlight

There are plenty of exceptions, but partial shade is the standard recommendation for growing Columbine. They can tolerate more sun in cooler climates and in the relative coolness of spring.

Soil

Grow Columbines in well-drained humusy soil with a neutral to slightly acidic pH. Mix some compost into the soil before planting to provide them with rich organic material. They prefer sandy or loamy soil over clay because good drainage is key.

Water

Columbine requires a moderate amount of soil moisture, so apply 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

Columbines are perennial in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8, but choose a variety that's well-suited for your specific climate. They don't tolerate excessive heat and flower best in cooler temperatures.

Fertilizer

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

Is Columbine Toxic?

While Aquilegia vulgaris and other species of Columbine can be eaten if properly prepared, and some have a history of medicinal uses, Columbine is a toxic plant and should not be ingested. It is classified as having minor toxicity and is typically associated with gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting. However, horses consuming columbine can experience respiratory distress, behavioral changes, coma, and death.

Varieties of Columbine

  • Aquilegia flabellata 'Nana': A dwarf cultivar with light blue and white bi-colored flowers; 6 to 9 inches tall
  • Aquilegia 'Crimson Star': Crimson red and white bi-colored flowers with long spurs; 24 to 30 inches tall.
  • Aquilegia 'McKana Hybrid': Bi-colored flowers with long spurs in shades of blue and white, red and yellow, and combinations of pink and purple; plants are tall, up to 30 inches.
  • Aquilegia caerulea: Rocky Mountain Columbine has grayish-green, fern-like foliage; very large white flowers with violet-blue sepals and yellow stamens; grows up to 24 inches tall
  • Aquilegia vulgaris 'Clementine Salmon-Rose': a long-blooming variety with salmon-colored, upward-facing blooms that resemble the blossoms of a double-flowered clematis; 14 to 16 inches tall
Pink columbine flowers
Clive Nichols / Getty Images
purple and white columbine
 skhoward / Getty Images
yellow columbine or Granny's Bonnet
Jacky Parker / Getty Images

Growing From Seeds

You can let your columbines reseed naturally by leaving the flower heads on the plants, or you can harvest the seeds and store them to sow next spring. Break open the dried seed pods and gather the seeds. Store them in the refrigerator over the winter. They need three to four weeks of cold prior to germinating, and this ensures they will be ready to sow when the time comes.

Start the seeds indoors, in moist soil, and set them in a sunny location. The seedlings will emerge in three to four weeks. When the plants reach 3 to 4 inches in height, harden them off gradually, then plant them outdoors about 10 inches apart.

Common Pests

Columbine foliage often bears the "doodling" of leaf miners, but the damage usually is not serious and gives the foliage a sort of randomly "variegated" look that can be appealing to some gardeners.

If you feel the need to control leaf miners, keep an eye out for the first signs of doodling. Inspect the leaves for the larvae, and crush them with your fingers. Otherwise, columbine plants are subject to few problems.