HARDINESS: Zones 3 to 9
PREFERRED SOIL pH: Adaptable
PREFERRED SOIL TYPE: Rich, moist, well-drained
PREFERRED LIGHT: Partial shade to sun
ATTRIBUTES: Colorful, often two-toned flowers on graceful plants; for borders
SEASON OF INTEREST: From late spring through early summer
FAVORITES: A. canadensis; A. vulgaris 'Nora Barlow'; 'Songbird', 'Music' series
QUIRKS: Mulch roots for summer cooling, winter insulating
GOOD NEIGHBORS: Bluestar, monkshood, perennial geraniums, spring-flowering bulbs
WHERE IT GROWS BEST: Partial shade in fertile, moist soil
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS: Leaf miners, aphids
RENEWING PLANTS: Short-lived; replace with seedlings every 3 years
CRITTER RESISTANCE: Good
SOURCE: Bedding plants, seeds
DIMENSIONS: 18-36 in (45.7-91.4 cm) tall, 12-24 in (30.5-61 cm) wide
Columbine in the Landscape
Affectionately known as granny's bonnets in bygone days, columbines provide brightly colored, graceful flowers and elegant foliage reminiscent of maidenhair fern for very little effort. The unique flowers are composed of spurred, back-swooping outer petals surrounding cupped inner petals, often in two colors, such as red and white or two tones of yellow. Blossoms are borne on slender, arching stems, so that they dance in the slightest breeze. Although columbines make fine cut flowers, it is difficult to take the fragile looking flowers from the garden without feeling like a thief.
A Columbine in Every Spot
Different columbines suit different garden styles. In a shady woodland garden, look to the North American native Aquilegia canadensis, which has red-and-yellow flowers. For naturalizing in low-maintenance gardens that receive some shade, the time-tested A. vulgaris 'Nora Barlow' is tough and adaptable, with spurless double flowers in pink, white, and lime green.
For more formal situations, choose hybrids such as the 3 ft (1 m) tall McKana Giants, which feature a wide range of beautiful bicolored flowers that are perfect for mixing with peonies, lady's mantle, golden yarrow, and foxglove. More compact at 20 in (50.8 cm), yet with very large flowers, are the Music and Songbird series. Both are easy to grow and offer the full range of columbine colors.
Short but Sweet
Columbines bloom like gangbusters for 2-3 years and then start to lose energy or perish altogether by their fourth season. A. canadensis and A. vulgaris 'Nora Barlow' shed numerous seeds after flowering, offering up an annual supply of new seedlings to perpetuate the colony. But when the big, handsome hybrids generate offspring, their progeny won't necessarily have the beautiful blooms or vigor of their parents. Rather than letting hybrids reseed, cut off old flowers and replace the plants every 3 years.
Plant columbines in spring or fall in organically rich, well-drained soil. Columbines are a cinch to grow from seed. In late winter or midsummer, chill seeds in the refrigerator for 2 weeks, plant by pressing them into the surface of damp soilless mix, and germinate at 70°C (21°C). Move homegrown or purchased seedlings outside as soon as the last frost passes, or when soil cools in early fall.
After setting out the plants, mulch between them with a 1 in (2.5 cm) layer of compost or leaf mold spread around the bases of the plants. This is essential if you're expecting a long, hot summer, and is also advisable at season's end to help the shallow-rooted plants get through the winter without being heaved out of the ground by freeze-and-thaw cycles.
Trouble in Paradise
Generally trouble free, columbines are sometimes visited by leaf miners. These are actually fly larvae. They tunnel between the two surfaces of a leaf, and make pale, winding trails as they tunnel. Gardeners resent this more than the columbines do, so it's sufficient to simply pinch off and discard affected leaves when you notice them. If you see any small, pear-shaped, sap-sucking insects called aphids, knock them off plants with a strong stream of water from a garden hose.