University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
PERENNIAL PLANT FEATURE: COLUMBINES
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont
This genus of perennials is one of the most popular and showy for mid-spring
to early summer blooms, with a wide selection of colors in their unique
flowers. There are columbines for many types of garden habitats, from
rock gardens, to tall meadows, to light shade or woodlands. Most are
quite hardy, surviving to USDA zone 3 (-30 degrees F average winter
Columbines are in the Ranunculaceae or Buttercup family, related to the
clematis, monkshood, delphinium, and meadow rue among other
perennials. The common name comes from the Latin “columba” for dove,
referring to the appearance of the flowers. The genus name for
columbine (Aquilegia) comes from the Latin word "aquila" for eagle,
which also refers to the shape of the flowers.
The five flower petals have a broad tube in front, and long spurs in back
that resemble the claws of an eagle. There also are five flower parts
resembling petals, called sepals, that may be the same or different colors
from the petals. Flowers may be upright or nodding, and are quite
attractive to hummingbirds. They provide nectar and pollen for various types
The leaves are often bluish-green, are found in groups of three (called
“ternate”), and have long stems (called “petioles”) that connect them with
the main upright plant stems. Plants are upright and, if tall, may
need some staking, especially in windy areas. Depending on selection,
plants may reach from one to three feet in height.
Columbines can grow well in full sun in the north, as long as their roots
stay cool and moist. Part shade is needed in hot climates. Most
soils are suitable for columbines, as long as they are well-drained and not
heavy clay. Soils should not be too acidic, just slightly acidic or
alkaline (pH 6 to 8).
Unlike many perennials that are best propagated by means such as division,
cuttings, or tissue culture, columbines are best grown from seeds.
They may gently self-sow in the garden, creating a cottage-garden
effect. If they self sow prolifically, seedlings are easily weeded out
where they’re not wanted. Columbines are not a garden “thug”, so they won’t
crowd out other plants but rather will grow in amongst them.
If you don't buy plants, but start them yourself from seeds, keep in mind
that the plants likely won’t bloom the first year. Plants
require some cold (termed "vernalization") over winter in order to bloom the
following spring. Seeds of most columbine species do not require cold
in order to germinate, but hot soil temperatures should be avoided.
The best germination occurs during warm days and cool nights, as in early
Columbines generally are short-lived, lasting only two to four years.
This will vary with species and growing conditions. Since most of the
plant energy goes into making seeds after flowering, cutting off old flowers
after bloom may help prolong the plant life. If several
selections of columbines are grown together, they may cross with each other
to create new colors from their seedlings, or seeds you collect and
There are few serious problems that attack columbines, and generally the
plants grow on in spite of them with little lasting harm. The most
common disease that you may see is powdery mildew—a white covering of the
leaves. Unlike many diseases, this one doesn’t need water to
spread. It thrives in warm days and cool nights. Good air
circulation and removing affected leaves will help in control, as will
several organic or biological products which contain ingredients such as
neem oil, sulfur, copper, potassium bicarbonate, or a strain of Bt.
Check fungicide labels to see if they’re approved for this disease and
contain any of these.
The most common insect pest that you may see is leaf miner. The larvae
of this fly feeds inside leaves, leaving light-colored winding
tunnels. Remove and destroy (trash, don’t compost) infected leaves
when first seen. New leaves that grow later in the season should be
Of the almost 70 different species of columbines native to various parts of
the Northern Hemisphere, there are several that are most found in our
gardens, and that have given rise to most of our cultivars (cultivated
varieties). Columbines have been bred for more than 400 years, yet
most of our current cultivars have been bred more recently. One of the
first mentions of this plant was in the 1550 writings of English farmer
Thomas Tusser. They were mentioned soon after by the great English
herbalist John Parkinson in 1629. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia
tells Gertrude that columbines symbolize adultery.
Columbines were used in the time of Chaucer and Shakespeare as a garnish for
food, and in medicines. According to the famous Swedish botanist
Linnaeus (who came up with the scientific system of plant names used today),
these uses stopped when children died of eating one too many.
Columbines are listed, now, as potentially harmful if ingested, causing
minor toxicity to humans and pets, particularly from the roots and
seeds. Many sources claim the flowers are very sweet, and safe if
consumed in moderation. Native Americans used tiny amounts of the roots
topically to treat ulcers.
Many of our selections come from the species Granny's bonnet (vulgaris),
which is originally from Europe and includes the striking dark purple and
white 'William Guiness.' One beautiful and popular native columbine
species, the Colorado state flower (caerulea), was taken to Germany
and England in the mid 1800's, where it was used widely in breeding with the
native European Granny’s bonnet and several other species (chrysantha,
formosa, canadensis). These crosses have given us many of our
common cultivars. Some are single colors such as 'Kristall' or
'Crystal' (white), 'Blue Star' (blue), 'Rose Queen' (pink and white), or
'Crimson Star' (red). While many of these reach two feet or more in
height, a new popular version of the latter—‘Red Hobbit’—only gets about one
foot high with its bright red and white flowers.
There are mixes of colors such as the McKana hybrids, Music series, and the
newer Songbird series (with names such as 'Blue Bird', 'Cardinal', and
‘Dove’). Many of these reach 18 to 24 inches high in bloom. The
popular Beidermeier and Winky series mostly are seen as mixtures of
colors. The latter series has bicolor flowers that are upward facing
with short spurs.
The Barlow and Clementine series are mainly single double colors, including
the very dark ‘Black Barlow’. They resemble miniature dahlias or
clematis. ‘Nora Barlow’ is a popular selection with reddish pink
flowers, and white to light green edges. It is named for the
granddaughter of naturalist Charles Darwin.
There are shorter selections from another species from Japan (flabellata),
including the Spring Magic and Cameo series. Both of these have
mixtures as well as single colors. Other good short choices for
gardens are the Alpine columbine (alpina), only reaching 12 to 18
inches high when in flower (violet blue), or the Siberian columbine (sibirica)
with brilliant blue flowers only one foot high. A couple of native
columbine species you may find include the red and yellow Canadian columbine
(canadensis) and dwarf (10 inches tall) ‘Little Lanterns' version of
it, and golden columbine (chrysantha).
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