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Colorful columbine adds garden beauty
With flowers suspended on thin, wiry stems, bobbing along in the breeze as if floating on water, the columbine makes the perfect addition to any garden or landscape.
Columbine foliage is reminiscent of maidenhair fern, being attached to the plant by long petioles. The flowers are an interesting landscape addition with colors ranging from purple and blue to yellow, white and red. Columbine bi-colored varieties of red and white, red and yellow, and blue and white are spectacular. The flowers either turn up or nod downward.
A notable feature of the columbine flower is the spur that is attached to each of the five petals. The spurs resemble an eagle’s claw for which the Latin translation is “aquila” which is related to the columbine genus name, Aquilegia. These spurs are thrust backward and create a counterbalance that allows the flowers to nod and bob with the slightest breeze.
Though these plants look fragile, they really are tolerant of many environments. Planted in full or partial shade, columbine will thrive and flower profusely. This plant likes good loamy to gravelly soil, and a rock garden is its favorite. Once the tap root has become established, the columbine shouldn’t be transplanted.
Columbine is a re-seeding perennial. In past years, columbine growing in my garden produced new seedlings each spring around the original plants. Re-seeding is a nice trait, as columbine should be treated as a short-lived perennial. I am sure there were times the original plant did not make it through the winter, but there were so many seedlings it did not matter. The extra plants are easily thinned, and when you give them away, you’ll make friends in the neighborhood.
Most of the plants at the garden centers are improved hybrids and selected to display the biggest and brightest garden performers. However, there are several other columbine species that are landscape worthy. While plants may not be available at the garden center, these plants will easily grow from seed.
Wild columbine (A. canadensis) prefers moist, wooded sites. The plant grows to 2 feet tall and has red sepals and short spurs with yellow petals. Golden columbine (A. chrysantha) has 2- to 3- inch diameter flowers that are a pure yellow-gold color and extra long spurs. It is a tall, loose growing 2- to 4-foot tall perennial. For those interested in a smaller plant, the alpine columbine (A. alpina) fits the bill at 1- to 2- feet tall. The blue flowers have short, curved or hooked spurs.
Not only does the columbine add beauty and interest to the landscape, it also attracts wildlife. The brightly colored spurs are filled with sweet nectar and are magnets for hummingbirds and butterflies.