Columbine flower has many interesting highlights
by Joan McFather
September 27, 2013 12:15 AM | 1702 views | 0 0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Not long ago at Plant Delights Nursery, Chapel Hill, N.C., I was delighted by the native columbine that had happily self-seeded itself throughout the wooded grounds. I purchased several seedlings and brought them home to my woods — where they promptly died. Lesson to self: Always check needed growing conditions before planting. Border of woods, yes; boggy clay...not so much. Definitely a “well drained soil” candidate.

My research made me want them all the more. Who knew there are 73 species of Aquilegia, also known as Granny’s Bonnet or Columbine? The second nickname, from the Latin columba for “dove,” refers to the flower’s likeness to five doves clustered together. The genus name, Aquilegia, from the Latin for eagle, refers to the blooms’ spur-like appendages like an eagle’s talons. Interesting combination — eagles and doves — for the same flower.

Columbines are actually quite easily grown perennial wildflowers, thriving in zones 3 to 9, preferring full sun in the morning and partial shade in the afternoon, though they will grow in full sun, given the afore-mentioned well-drained soil. In fact, once established they will tolerate dry soil and drought conditions, thus making them good candidates for xeriscaping. While new plants might prefer a more alkaline soil than we have, a little all purpose soluble 5-10-5 fertilizer on first planting will take them through to maturity. Continued monthly fertilizing will promote healthy tap root systems and larger and brighter flowers. (Note that if you plant from seed you have to wait for blooms: columbines are biennial and will not flower until their second year.)

What about care? It’s a good question, for you have to make several decisions. Columbines tend to be short lived, lasting perhaps three to five years at best. If you deadhead them, you will have showier plants, but when they’re gone, they’re gone. If you let them self-seed, they will replace themselves — and will spread. I’m personally all for naturalizing, but be aware that columbines tend to cross-pollinate. If you began with a number of different colors, you might end up with a single hue. Another issue is leaf miners. They don’t do a lot of damage, other than the “doodling” lines in the leaves, but if that bothers you, prune the plants down to the ground after flowering and get rid of the foliage—not in the compost pile.

Speaking of colors, I had no idea there were so many, or so many flower shapes, since what I had been admiring was our Eastern Aquiegia canadensis: bright red spurs and sepals around yellow petals within. Out in the west there are dozens of native varieties: the Colorado state flower is the Rocky Mountain columbine in bright blue and white. Today from growers you have your choice of pinks, peaches, blues, purples, reds and bicolors in single, double and even triple flowers as hybridizers continue to develop crosses. And then there’s the matter of nectar spurs of varying lengths, making the flowers especially appealing to hummingbirds, the columbine’s most efficient pollinator. Finally, once you have enjoyed the flowers in spring, the lush green leaves of summer turn in fall to deep purple or maroon, keeping interest through the winter.

As for talking points, the columbine has many interesting highlights. To some folks the flowers are a symbol of foolishness because they resemble a court jester’s hat. Personally, I prefer the story about the Virgin Mary’s visit to her sister, Elizabeth. According to the University of Illinois Extension, the legend says that everywhere Mary walked, columbines sprang up in her footsteps, representing her innocence. There are many allusions to the columbine in the symbolism of religious art, and it can be found in literature —Hamlet’s Ophelia carried some to her grave, for instance, though there it represents faithlessness.

Having originated in Eastern Europe, the columbine migrated over the Bering land bridge to North America. Native Americans used it for everything from seasoning their food to rubbing the crushed seeds on their hands, whereby the pleasing aroma would help attract a mate—and repel lice, not necessarily in that order! Medicinally the plant was used to treat heart problems and control fevers, but since the roots and seeds are highly poisonous, I suggest we not sample them and let the beautiful blooms suffice as our enjoyment.

I am primarily indebted to the following for information: David Beaulieu,, Deborah Harding, and Nikki Phipps, The Bulb-o-licious Garden.

Information about Extension Solutions for Homes and Gardens can be found on the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension website, ; or contact the Cherokee County Extension Office, 1130 Bluffs Parkway, Suite G49, Canton, GA, 30114, 770-721-7803. The Georgia Master Gardener Extension Volunteer Program is a volunteer training program offered through county offices of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.

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