Columbine Plant Profile

Aquilegia Columbines

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One of the sweetest flowers in spring gardens is the Columbine. Columbine plants (Aquilegia spp.) have an airy appearance, with small, rounded leaves and tall flower stalks that hold the blooms above the foliage. The mid-spring blooms fill the void between early spring bulbs and peak garden season. Aquilegia's bell-shaped flowers are popular with hummingbirds, bees, and gardeners.

The genus name, Aquilegia, is from the Latin word aquila, for "eagle," and is so named because the flowers resemble the bird's claw. The common name columbine is after the Latin word for "dove," bestowed on the plant because the inverted flower was thought to resemble five birds clustered together.

Several native species are grown as garden plants, but this plant has been in cultivation for many years, resulting in dozens of popular hybrids and cultivars, with more developed each year. The plant readily cross-breeds, and gardeners who plant two different varieties sometimes are gifted with self-seeded volunteers that have an entirely new appearance.

Botanical Name Aquilegia spp.
Common Name Columbine
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 15 to 20 inches tall, 12- to 18-inch spread
Sun Exposure Full sun to part shade
Soil Type Medium moisture, well-drained soil
Soil pH 6.1 to 6.8 (mildly acidic)
Bloom Time Late spring to early summer
Flower Color Blue, orange, pink, purple, red, white, yellow
Native Area Meadows and woodlands of northern hemisphere

How to Grow Columbine 

You can start Columbine flowers from seed or nursery plants. They will do well in almost any well-drained soil, but prefer a slightly acidic soil. Columbine plants should be planted with the crown at soil level. Seeds can be direct sown throughout spring. The seeds need light to germinate, so simply press them on the soil surface and barely cover with soil. When planted from seeds, it may take two full years to enjoy blooms.

Most varieties of columbine plants will bloom for at least four weeks, and are tougher plants than they appear. They tend to be short-lived perennials, but they will spread through self-seeding, remaining in your garden for years. When blooms are finished for the season, cut the plants down to the ground and allow surrounding plants to fill in the space. The columbines will reliably return the following year, or replace themselves with self-seeded volunteers.

Light

For the best flowering and healthiest plants, a spot in partial shade is ideal. Columbine plants can handle full sun in spring, but after they have flowered and are re-building their store of energy, they appreciate some shade in summer's heat.

Soil

Any type of soil can be used to grow columbine plants, though it does better with sandier, loamier soils and not quite as well in heavy clay soils.

Water

New plants will need to be kept moist until they become established. You'll know they are established when they start putting out a lot of new growth. Even then, keep your columbine plants well-watered during dry spells.

Temperature and Humidity

Columbine is sensitive to high temperatures, and cooler weather will produce more flowers.

Fertilizer

Fertilize the plant with a water-soluble formula monthly. This will encourage thick foliage and bright flowers.

Propagating Columbine

Columbine is not easy to lift and divide, as it has deep roots. If you must divide, dig down as deeply as possible in a circle around the roots, pull it up without breaking the soil ball, and divide it quickly with a sharp instrument. Retain as much of the soil around the roots as possible, and replant quickly.

Propagating from collected seeds is easier. After the flower petals have dried up, harvest the ripened seed pods left inside, and break them open to collect the shiny black seeds. Store them in the refrigerator over winter, then plant them in the garden the following spring.

Varieties of Columbine

Varieties of columbine include dwarf varieties that are just 6 inches tall, as well as large varieties, such as McKana's Giants, that are more than 3 feet tall with large flowers. Keep in mind that Aquilegia varieties readily cross-pollinate. If you plant more than one variety, be prepared to see new colors and combinations. A small fraction of Columbine varieties include:

  • Aquilegia 'Crimson Star' features long-spurred, crimson red flowers, and blooms for four to six weeks in late spring to early summer.
  • Aquilegia 'McKana Hybrid' grows long-spurred, bi-colored flowers that can be blue and white, red and yellow, or other color combinations; it blooms in the late spring to early summer.
  • Aquilegia caerulea (Rocky Mountain columbine) features fern-like foliage that is grayish-green in color and blooms for four to six weeks in the late spring and early summer. The flowers have violet-blue sepals, white petals, and yellow stamens.
  • Aguilegia Songbird 'BlueBird' blooms with long-spurred blue and white flowers that are up to 3 inches long; part of the Songbird Series of Columbine that also includes 'Cardinal' and 'Dove.'

Toxicity of Columbine

The seeds and roots of columbine plants contain cardiogenic toxins that can cause severe gastrointestinal symptoms and heart palpitations if consumed in large amounts. The taste is unpleasant, however, so it is rare that humans or other animals consume it in large enough quantities to be dangerous.

Pruning

Encourage additional flowering by deadheading the plant regularly to get rid of faded blooms. If you wish to avoid self-seeding, cut back the foliage and seedpods in the fall months.

Growing From Seeds

It's not hard to grow columbine flowers from seeds, but be aware that they usually do not blossom until year two. Additionally, the seeds need a three- to four-week cold spell before germination will occur, which you can ensure by keeping the seed packets in the refrigerator before sowing.

Plant the columbine seeds in moist soil in a warm, sunny indoor location. It will take the seeds about 30 days to germinate. Once the seedlings develop a pair of true leaves and have reached 3 to 4 inches tall, transplant them outside.

Common Pests/ Diseases

Columbine plants are susceptible to leaf miner, a pest that can disfigure the leaves but which rarely kills plants. Chemical pesticides can prevent leaf miners, but toxic controls are discouraged because the pests do not kill the plant. Aphids are a lesser problem, treatable with insecticidal soaps and oils.

Foliage usually declines by mid-summer at which point it should be cut to the ground.