The Ultimate Guide to Columbine

Eastern Red Columbine

Photo: Aquilegia canadensis, the eastern red columbine.

If you live in the eastern US, these serendipitous red flowers may have caught your eye under a tree in mid-spring, only to disappear just as quietly in the early summer heat. The remaining leaves, composed of leaflets in sets of three, are beautifully scalloped and hug the earth in a lacy groundcover.

This is the
eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), which is native to most states in the eastern half of the US. It grows along rocky slopes, roadsides, and in the dappled shade of open woodlands. It spreads by self-sowing, although not aggressively. The dangling, spurred, red flowers with bright yellow interiors are especially attractive to the ruby-throated hummingbird, which breeds in the eastern United States each summer.

This polite, charming wildflower is right at home in a garden, where it tucks nicely between other perennials and around the base of trees. The eastern red columbine is normally 18”-24” tall in bloom, but cultivars come in different colors and sizes. ‘Little Lanterns,’ for example, is a delightful dwarf variety that keeps all the features of its parent but tops out at only 6”-12”.


Types of columbine

Species of columbine are present all across the northern hemisphere, though no matter the distance between them, all seem to share the same spurred flowers, bare stems, and lacy foliage as our own native.

The European columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris, has blooms that range from blue to rich violet, and cultivars that get even more colorful. Our favorite is Aquilegia ‘Black Barlow,’ which has delightfully double, dark velvet blooms. It’s an heirloom variety, which means the seedlings will grow to look the same as the parent (unlike many other cultivars).

Black Barlow Columbine

Photo: Aquilegia vulgaris 'Black Barlow'

The Colorado blue columbine, Aquilegia coerulea, is a tough plant that can thrive in even the rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountains. The freely sowing colonies sport enormous, blue and white flowers that swath the hillsides and meadows in color. Cultivars come in even more colors, like the showy ‘Kirigami™ Rose and Pink.’

There are dozens more (far too many to list). However, thanks to commonality between columbine species, the tips below will be useful no matter which you decide to plant.


How to care for columbine

Columbine is an easy perennial to grow once you’re familiar with its needs. It is a shade plant in the southern US and can be a sun or shade plant in the cooler climates of the north.

Most Aquilegia are hardy to USDA Zone 3. As incredibly cold-hardy perennials, they do not need mulching or winter protection, and are not likely to be killed by a sudden freeze (though there may be some damage to the foliage).

Heat, however, is a different story. It is not unusual for the foliage of columbine to yellow, wilt, and deteriorate in late summer or early fall. The sudden change can be alarming for new and unfamiliar gardeners, but don’t panic: When this happens, simply cut the plant back to the ground, and let the foliage grow anew.

You can help the foliage maintain a healthy appearance and withstand the heat for longer by providing adequate moisture and afternoon shade in southern climates. While Aquilegia will survive drought and grow in dry conditions, it performs best when provided with consistent moisture.

Good drainage is the singular most important requirement for successfully growing columbine. It will grow in just about any soil type, except dense clay, where trapped water will rot the roots. If you have dense clay soil, you can mix compost, sand, or gravel into the planting site to improve the drainage enough to grow columbine.


Possible problems or pests

Columbine is generally resistant to deer and rabbits, though that is not the same as being immune. Deer and rabbits will eat it if they are hungry enough, but usually only after exhausting all their other options.

Leaf miners are the most common columbine pests. The larvae of these tiny flying insects feed on the leaves, mining narrow paths of destruction that look like white snail trails to the naked eye. These areas can deform or decay as the plant continues to grow.

Leaf miner on a columbine leaf.

Photo: An adult leaf miner fly and a columbine leaf with leaf miner damage.

Several factors play into how likely you are to see leaf miners in your garden. First, healthy plants are less likely to attract these insects, while struggling or stressed plants become prime targets. Keeping your columbine plant healthy is the best method of prevention. Second is the species. For instance, the eastern red columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, is one of the most resistant species to leaf miners.

If you do see leaf miners on your columbine, how can you deal with them? That depends on the size of the infestation. While leaf miner damage can be unsightly, it will not kill the plant. Most infestations can be dealt with by removing affected leaves and throwing them in the garbage. Numerous other insects feed on leaf miners, like parasitic wasps, so even untreated infestations will likely succumb to predators over time.

In more severe cases, mild insecticides like Spinosad can be used to control leaf miner infestations. Use discretion when choosing insecticides, and take care not to over-apply them, or you may damage the populations of beneficial insects in your garden. If most of the plant’s leaves have been damaged, you may choose to cut it back instead, and forgo the pesticides altogether.


Planting columbine

Columbine plants can be planted in fall or spring. When planted in fall, these perennials have an “extra” season to establish, which usually grants larger root systems and more blooms the first year. Columbine’s extreme cold tolerance takes some of the worry away from late season planting: Even if it’s planted too late, or hit by an unexpectedly early frost, the plants are unlikely to die. Frost may kill or damage the foliage, but the roots will persist underground and sprout new foliage in spring.

Columbines can also be planted in early spring after your last frost date, so they have ample time to establish roots before the heat of summer. You can find your frost dates here.

Suitable companion plants for columbine include Virginia bluebells, hostas, perennial Geranium, Spigelia, Astilbe, and ferns.

Columbine seed heads and seeds

Photo: Aquilegia vulgaris seed heads with seeds. Image courtesy of Roger Culos.

When sowing Aquilegia seeds directly outdoors, it is best to plant them in late spring. They can be sown inside even earlier and transplanted outside after they’ve grown their first set of true leaves. Lightly cover the seeds with soil and mist to keep the top layer moist. The seeds usually germinate within four weeks.

Rare Roots sells growing plants in 1-quart pots, and not seeds, but it’s easy enough to harvest your own seeds once you’ve got a plant established. After the plant has finished blooming, elongated seed pods will grow on the tall stems. When the seed pods have fully matured and begin to split, the small black seeds can be removed. Once fully dry, store the seeds in an envelope in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight until it’s time to plant.

Be aware that many cultivars do not come true to seed, meaning that they may look significantly different from the parent plant if you try to grow them. Some cultivars are even sterile. Look for straight species (like Aquilegia canadensis) or heirloom varieties (like ‘Black Barlow’) if you’re planning on saving and growing your own seeds.

A far, far easier method than collecting and sowing seeds by hand is to simply leave your columbine plant to self-sow. Not only will the birds be happy, but the surprise clusters of dangling flowers will bring a touch of whimsy to your garden next spring.

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