Nurturing Your Columbine: Tips for Planting and Maintenance

Granny’s bonnet or crowfoot, commonly known as Aquilegia, is a beautiful plant that originates from the northeastern parts of Canada and the United States. It’s not just the native species that are accessible to home gardeners; introduced species from Europe and hybrids with improved features such as diverse color options, robustness, and impressive heights are also available.

Aquilegia, also known as A. vulgaris, displays a stunning array of colors, from orange and pink to purple, red, white, yellow, and even green, with centers that either match or contrast. Its flowers vary in size, ranging from a petite six inches to up to three feet tall. These delicate blooms are often two-toned and sit atop slender stems that emerge from fern-like foliage. Moreover, their slender nectar-filled spurs are irresistible to bumblebees and hummingbirds. This resilient plant prefers full sun in cool regions but partial to full shade in warmer areas. It can withstand drought and thrives in average to moist, well-drained soil.

The A. canadensis, also known as the Eastern or wild red columbine, is a native plant commonly found in woodland regions with cool shade. Its unique downward-facing pendant blossoms are recognizable with their red or pink color and yellow centers, and are popular among mountain hikers. Another native plant to note is the A. caerulea, which comes in the Colorado blue variety and is featured in our article on 11 Native Blue Wildflowers for the Garden. Additionally, the European Aquilegia has become naturalized in the United States, with common varieties including A. vulgaris and A. alpina.

If you plan to propagate columbine, keep in mind that it grows easily from seed but is a short-lived perennial that usually lasts for about three years. While it is self-sowing, the seeds of a hybrid may not produce plants of equal quality, and cross-pollination between plants can result in varying colors of offspring grown from seed. You can start seeds indoors in late winter or outdoors after the last average frost date of spring, or sow them after summer heat wanes. When starting seeds, moisten the potting medium lightly, and when planting outdoors, work the soil down about six inches until it’s crumbly and add sand or leaf mulch to improve drainage and loosen the soil.

To grow Aquilegia canadensis, begin by sprinkling the seeds on the surface of the soil and pressing them down gently, without covering them. If you’ve started the seeds indoors, wait until the cotyledons appear before moving them to indirect sunlight. Be mindful of placing them on a windowsill, as the heat can scorch the tender sprouts. Make sure to keep the soil moist but not oversaturated. Once the first true leaves emerge, gradually acclimate the seedlings to outdoor conditions by increasing their exposure over several days before transplanting them to the garden.

When planting or transplanting outdoors, choose a location with well-draining soil and full to partial sun. Conduct a soil test if necessary to determine its pH and quality. Provide even moisture, watering weekly in the absence of rain as the weather warms up. To promote germination, chill the seeds overnight prior to sowing. Ensure good drainage to prevent rotting during dormancy. Avoid planting different cultivars near each other to prevent cross-pollination, and space plants according to packet instructions to inhibit fungal disease buildup.

Aquilegia canadensis is ideal for beds and borders due to its shallow root system, clumping growth habit, and wide range of color options.

Aquilegia or columbine is a popular choice for cottage-style gardening due to its sparse foliage that complements both tall and short plants. It is also ideal for small spaces and container gardening. To create a delicate, wispy foreground display, plant it in the shade cast by shrubbery or taller companions. Aquilegia is an excellent way to attract beneficial pollinators such as bumblebees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Maintenance includes consistent moisture during germination and seedling stages and weekly watering once plants are established. It self-sows, but hybrids produce seedlings that differ from the parent plant, so weed them out if you want to avoid a “potluck” variety. Deadhead spent blossoms to encourage more growth. There are many cultivars of columbine available with exceptional features, such as pest resistance, unusual colors, double petals, varying spur lengths, and upward-facing blossoms. ‘Blue Star’ is a stunning focal point with its upward-facing, cerulean blue star-like outer sepals with slender spurs and contrasting white centers.

A great way to welcome visitors to your home during the spring-to-summer season is by planting ‘Blue Star’ en masse near your entryway. These plants are known for their beautiful blue blossoms that measure around three to four inches in diameter and grow up to 30 inches tall. You can enjoy the vibrant blooms from spring all the way through summer. If you’re interested, you can find ‘Blue Star’ seeds available for purchase from Eden Brothers. Another option for creating a stunning visual display in your garden is to plant ‘McKana Giant.’ These plants grow up to two to three feet tall and feature a variety of multicolored blossoms. They’ll add some vertical interest and make for a lovely focal point in any garden setting.

The ‘McKana Giant’ Mix of A. hybrida is a striking variety with upward-facing flowers that seem to be painted by hand in a range of colors, including purple, red, white, yellow, and various bi-color combinations. The blooms also boast impressive long spurs and measure between two to three inches in diameter. This cultivar typically flowers from spring through summer and you can purchase the seeds from Eden Brothers. Another noteworthy variety is the Swan Burgundy and White, which features deep burgundy sepals and velvety long spurs. The white centers are accented with the same vivid burgundy hue, creating a visually stunning contrast. These flowers are also around two to three inches across.

Looking for a versatile plant to add to your garden? Consider the ‘Swan Burgundy and White’ variety, which stands at a manageable height of 18 to 20 inches and pairs well with both subtle and vibrant hues. You can enjoy its blooms from spring until summer, making it a reliable addition to any outdoor space. If you’re interested in growing this variety yourself, head over to Burpee to purchase the seeds. For a more natural and native option, check out the wild columbine, also known as A. canadensis. This species can be found growing wildly throughout Canada and boasts smaller, downward-facing flowers with upward-pointing spurs. While they may not be as showy as hybrids, they still offer a distinct beauty that can enhance any garden.

The Eastern red columbine, scientifically known as Aquilegia canadensis, displays one- to two-inch flowers with red sepals and yellow centers. Its spurs are also red but much shorter compared to hybrid types. This native species blooms in the spring and grows up to two feet tall. To make it noticeable, planting in large quantities is recommended, especially for small-space gardens. You can purchase wild columbine plants from Nature Hills Nursery or packets of 50 seeds from Earthbeat Seeds. However, be wary of pests like leaf miners and powdery mildew, which can cause unsightly damage to the foliage. Applying neem oil can help control these problems. The Eastern red columbine is a moderate-maintenance herbaceous perennial flowering plant that grows well in various soils and tolerates deer, rabbits, and drought. It attracts bumblebees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, making it an ideal addition to beds, borders, cottage gardens, and small-space gardens. With its vibrant colors, this lovely flower heralds the arrival of spring.

A. caerulea is a species of flowering plants that is commonly known as the blue lotus.

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