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Columbine, a Woodland Garden Favorite

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Gardeners celebrate the emergence of the columbine in the perennial garden in the spring, especially in temperate zones and alpine regions, where the wildflower demonstrates its tough nature.

Latin Name:

Photo © Jamie McIntosh

Columbine belongs to the genus Aquilegia, and is a member of the Ranunculaceae, or Buttercup family.



Common Names:

Columbine, Devil’s Bells, Granny’s Bouquet, Our Lady’s Glove

USDA Hardiness Zones:

Columbine plants grow in zones 3 to 9.

Size of Columbine Plants:

Columbine plants are good choices for the middle of the mixed flower border, as they range from two to four feet in height. They are a moderately spreading plant, averaging about 18 inches in diameter.

Flowers of Columbine Plants:

Photo © Jamie McIntosh

Columbine flowers can grow in a nodding or upright position, but the spurs of the flowers are a key characteristic. Although these spiky protrusions are highly ornamental, they evolved with the plant to serve as an essential survival trait: The length of the spurs accommodates different pollinators. For example, columbines that grew wild in areas populated by long-tongued hawk moths developed longer spurs over time.

Other differences in spur appearance distinguish columbine species from one another. The thickness of the spurs varies from stout to narrow. The position of the spurs in relation to the petals can appear straight, curved, hooked, and spreading or not spreading. With all these possibilities in flower appearance, it’s easy to see how a gardener can become a columbine aficionado!

Foliage of Columbine Plants:

The foliage of the columbine is delicate and fern-like, bearing clusters of lobed leaves on thin stems. Specialty columbine varieties have foliage as ornamental as their flowers, like Woodside Gold, which has golden yellow leaves and rose-colored flowers, or Leprechaun Gold, featuring variegated leaves and violet flowers.

Additional Columbine Facts:

Columbines hybridize easily, resulting in fun new varieties or frustrating hybridization, depending on the view of the gardener. If you want to save seed from your columbine plants to grow identical plants next season, you must isolate them from other varieties, not so easy to do when bumblebees flit from one suburban garden oasis to the next. Gardeners who don’t mind a few surprises in the garden each year can observe the mingling of columbine species in the landscape thanks to pollinators, resulting in flowers sporting unexpected colors and shapes.

Design Tips for Columbine:

Columbine plants look best planted in groups of three to five plants. Columbines complement the woodland garden, but they also look attractive in seasonal container gardens mixed with snapdragons, ornamental cabbage, or pansies.

Growing Tips for Columbine:

Columbine plants grow well in filtered sunlight, which protects their delicate foliage from sunscald. Columbine grows well in both fertile and lean soils, but heavy soil that doesn’t drain is the death knell for this plant. Columbine flowers are light feeders, and don’t require fertilizer beyond some compost or humus added to the soil.

The easiest way to start columbine plants from seed is to scatter them in the garden in the fall, as the chilling period of winter triggers fast germination in the spring. Starting the seeds indoors can yield uneven results, but for experienced growers, a stratification period in the refrigerator followed by up to three months of tending will result in germination.

Maintenance:

You can deadhead columbine flowers as they fade to prolong flowering, or you can expand your columbine collection by letting them set seed. When temperatures soar above 90 degrees, the foliage starts to look shabby, and the plant can become completely dormant. If this occurs, it’s fine to trim back the crispy looking parts.

Pests & Diseases of Columbine:

You may notice the serpentine tunnels of the leafminer in columbine foliage. This wormlike pest is the larval stage of tiny flies. It’s OK to accept a bit of damage, or to just remove any heavily infested leaves. You can control the columbine aphid with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil.
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