University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article


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 minimum).

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 of bees.

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 spring.

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 sow. 
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 miner free.

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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