How to Grow and Care for Columbine

columbine flowers

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

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.

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 crossbreeds, and gardeners who plant two different varieties sometimes are gifted with self-seeded volunteers that have an entirely new appearance.

Take note: This plant is toxic to humans and pets.

Botanical Name Aquilegia spp.
Common Name Columbine
Family Ranunculaceae
Plant Type Perennial
Mature Size 15-20 in. tall, 12-18 in. spread
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Moist but well-drained soil
Soil pH Acidic, neutral
Bloom Time Spring, summer
Flower Color Blue, orange, pink, purple, red, white, yellow
Native Area Europe, North America
Toxicity Toxic to people and pets

Columbine Care 

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

closeup of columbine
The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova
closeup of columbine flowers
The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova
yellow columbine flowers
The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova
different colored columbine flowers
The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

For the best flowering and healthiest plants, a spot in partial shade is ideal. Columbine plants can handle full sun in cooler climates, 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. Well-drained soil is important. Mulch the plant to help retain moisture and keep the roots cool.

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. Hot temperatures will cause the plant to go dormant in the summer.

Fertilizer

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

Types 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.
  • Aquilegia 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."

Pruning

Prune columbine plants back to their healthy base leaves just after blooming. It may promote a second set of stem growth within a few weeks so that you may enjoy another wave of blooms later in the season. Columbines can be cut back to about 1/2 of their height after flowering to keep the plant attractive and green for the remainder of the summer.

How to Propagate 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 spade. 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. However, if the parent plant is a hybrid, the seeds may not produce plants true to the parent.

How to Grow Columbine 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. The seedlings need 16 hours of light, so a grow light is recommended. Once the seedlings develop a pair of true leaves and have reached 3 to 4 inches tall, pot them up into larger containers. Harden off the plants for two weeks before transplanting them in the garden.

Overwintering

Remove any wilted foliage and cut the plant back to ground level. Use a light layer of mulch to protect the plants through the winter.

Common Pests and Plant 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 are discouraged because the pests do not kill the plant. Aphids are a lesser problem, treatable with insecticidal soaps and oils.

How to Get Columbine to Bloom

Remember that many varieties of columbine won't give blooms at all until their second season. They need the first season to grow a healthy root system and have no energy to spare for the lovely flowers. If columbine is planted too deeply, it will not bloom, as it needs a shallow planting. Make sure the layer of mulch used for overwintering is removed early in the season, as this can stifle blooms as well. Finally, keep in mind that soil heavy in nitrogen produces lovely green foliage but inhibits the growth of blooms.

FAQ
  • How long can columbine live?

    A columbine plant usually lives only two to three years. However, they are abundant self-seeders so you might not even notice when the original plant dies.

  • Can columbine grow indoors?

    In most cases, columbine grown in containers indoors will provide you with beautiful foliage but no blooms. These plants thrive in outdoor soil.

  • Where does the columbine plant get its name?

    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.

Article Sources
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  1. Perennial plant feature: columbines. pss.uvm.edu.

  2. Aquilegia Canadensis. Missouri Botanical Garden