How to Grow and Care for Columbine Flowers

Aquilegia Columbines
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One of the sweetest flowers in spring gardens is the Columbine. Columbine plants (Aquilegia) have an airy appearance, with small, rounded leaves and tall flower stalks that hold the blooms above the foliage. Aquilegia's bell-shaped flowers are popular with hummingbirds, bees, and gardeners. The mid-spring blooms fill the void between early spring bulbs and peak garden season. Columbine flowers are associated with woodland gardens, but most are widely adaptable. Many of the species are native to areas throughout North America, from Canada to Texas.

Most varieties of Columbine plants will bloom for at least four weeks. They are tougher plants than they appear, but they tend to be short-lived perennials. However, they will seed and spread, remaining in your garden for years.

  • Leaves: Flat fans of oval dark green leaves that turn red in the fall.
  • Flowers: Each dangling, bell-shaped flower has five petals that flare out from the base, surrounded by a collar of five larger sepals. The long, nectar holding spurs arch backward out of the flowers. Petals and sepals come in a variety of colors and combinations, in shade of light blue, pink, purple, red, white and yellow

Botanical Name

Aquilegia x hybrida Pronounced a-kwi-LEE-jee-a

Common Name

Columbine

Hardiness Zones

Columbine plants are adaptable to almost every garden, growing in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 - 9. The columbine species are wildflowers native to many areas of North America.

Sun Exposure

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.

Mature Plant Size

Size can vary greatly, by variety. There are dwarf Columbines that don't get much taller than 4 - 6 inches and taller varieties that can top 3 feet. In general, expect Columbine plants to be about 24 - 36 inches (h) x 6 - 12 inches (w)

Bloom Period

Peak flowering time is late spring to early summer. Columbines will remain in bloom 4 to 6 weeks, depending on the weather.

The Best Columbine Flowers to Grow

  • "Sunshine" - Long blooming with large, fluffy, double pale yellow flowers. (24-28 inches)
  • "Songbird Mix" - bicolored flowers; white paired with shades of blue, purple and violet (24-36 inches)
  • "Texas Gold" - Tough, heat tolerant hybrid with gold flowers (8 - 24 inches)

Species

  • Aquilegia bertolonii - Light blue and white compact alpine plant (6-8 inches)
  • Aquilegia canadensis> - Pretty native red and yellow species that naturalizes. (15-18 inches)
  • Aquilegia vulgaris plena - "Black Barlow" - Double, spurless flowers in almost black purple (28-32 inches)

Using Columbine Plants in Your Garden Design

Aquilegia plants are naturals in woodland and rock gardens. Their delicate fan-shaped foliage is a nice contrast to ferns and Hostas and since they hold their flowers high above the base of the plant, they blend well with other shade lovers, like Hellebores and bleeding hearts.

You can use Columbine plants in containers, but they'll need regular watering. Place the containers somewhere where hummingbirds will feel welcome because this is one of their favorite plants.

Growing Tips for Columbine Plants

Soil: Columbine plants are adaptable, but they prefer an acidic soil pH of about 5.0 to 6.0.

Planting: You can start Columbine flowers from seed or plant. 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. Since Aquilegia is a perennial, it will take 2 years from planting the seeds, for them to bloom.

If you are starting your seeds indoors, Columbine seeds will do better with some pre-chilling. Place the seeds in the refrigerator in a plastic bag with some damp potting soil, 8 - 12 weeks before your last frost date. Then put them in a pot with soil and move them to a warmer spot.

Columbine plants should be planted with their crown at soil level. Water well and mulch. 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 water during dry spells.

Caring for Columbine Flowers

Columbine plants can handle full sun. It's the combination of heat and dry soil they don't like and mulching will help alleviate that.

Columbine flowers will self-sow, but new plants can be lost if the summer gets too hot. Also, plants tend to be short-lived, fading out within 3 years. Hedge your bets and save some seed to sow in the fall or falling spring.

Keep in mind that Aquilegia varieties readily cross-pollinate. If you plant more than one variety, be prepared to see new colors and combinations.

If self-sowing becomes a nuisance, shear the plants back in mid-summer, to prevent seed pods from forming.

Pests & Problems of Columbine Plants

Aphids, caterpillars and leaf miners all love Columbine plants. Leaf miners are by far the biggest problem. The miners tunnel inside the leaves and can quickly make an unsightly mess. Shearing the plants, after blooming, will usually avert the problem. Since Columbine plants do not usually rebloom, shearing is the best way to control insect problems. The leaves will eventually fill back in.