How to Grow Aquilegia — Columbine

Purple columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Purple columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Aquilegia–commonly called columbines–has bell-shaped flowers reminiscent of daffodils with the addition of showy spurs. Columbine flowers appear in pastels, deep shades, and white. Foliage is lacy and reminiscent of maidenhair fern.

This is one of the most valuable of hardy perennials for its exquisite, durable, lobed foliage which often turns to rich colors in autumn, and its spurred gracefully hung blossoms produced in early summer.

The sepals as well as the petals are colored, and each of the latter has a downward extension which forms a hollow spur.

There are few spots in the garden to which some form of Aquilegia is not appropriate–the perennial border, the cutting garden, the wild garden, the rockery.

Seed sown in spring or early summer will give plants that can be set into their permanent homes in early autumn. The following spring they will bloom abundantly growing generally from1 to 3 feet (1m) high.

Young plants should be shaded and when they are transplanted (preferably to rich humus to which bone meal has been added) they should be given only partial sun and protection from wind.

Most Aquilegias can also be propagated from root divisions. Divisions made in autumn will be ready for flowering in the spring.

Beautiful Aquilegia caerulea
Beautiful Aquilegia caerulea

Get to Know Aquilegia

  • Plant type: Perennial; plants live 3 to 4 years.
  • Growing Zones and range: 3-9, varies with species
  • Hardiness: Species are hardy to -35°F (-37°C); hybrids are hardy to -20°F (-29°C); plants knocked back by freezing weather and re-emerge in spring; tolerates heat
  • Height and width: 2 to 3 feet tall (60-90cm); 1 to 2 feet (30-60cm) wide.
  • Foliage: Blue-green leaves; leaflets are obovate or rounded and lobed
  • Flowera: Each flower has five-spurred petals surrounded by five petal-like sepals; flowers are ¼ to 4 inches (12-100mm) long
  • Flower colors: Single- or bi-colored flowers can be yellow, red, blue, purple, pink, or white
  • Bloom time: Late spring to early summer
  • Use: Colorful choice for shade and woodland gardens, cottage gardens, and rock gardens; grow front to mid in beds. Columbine attracts hummingbirds.
  • Garden companions: geraniums, blue star (Amsonia), and blue phlox
  • Common name: Columbine
  • Botanical name: Aquilegia
  • Family: Ranunculaceae
  • Origin: Woodland and mountainous areas in the Northern Hemisphere

Where to Plant Aquilegia

  • Plant Aquilegia in full sun; plant columbine in part shade where temperatures hit 100°F.
  • Grow Aquilegia in rich, loose, well-drained soil. Aquilegia will rot in soil that is too wet especially in winter.

Aquilegia Uses and Companions

  • Aquilegia is at home in borders, cottage, meadow, and woodland gardens.
  • Good companions for Aquilegia include Campanula, Siberian Iris, Polygonatul, Primula, and Sisyrinchium striatum.

When to Plant Aquilegia

  • Set out Aquilegia seedlings in spring and fall.
  • Sow seed outdoors in spring or summer.
  • Sow seed indoors in winter after storing seed in refrigerator 4-6 weeks.
Aquilegia hybrida, columbine

Planting and Spacing Aquilegia

  • Space Aquilegia 1 to 2 feet (30-60cm) apart.
  • Sow seed 1/8 inch deep in evenly prepared soil.

How to Water and Feed Aquilegia

  • Keep the soil just moist; columbine will survive in dry soil.
  • Feed plants every 6 weeks or apply a 9-month, slow-release fertilizer in spring.

Aquilegia Care

  • Plants that become rangy can be cut back by half to generate new growth.
  • Mulch around plants in winter to keep soil from splashing on leaves.
  • Cut back old stems for second crop of flowers.

Aquilegia Pests and Diseases

  • Aquilegia is susceptible to leaf-miner attack; remove and destroy affected leaves. Also susceptible to crown rot, leaf spot, mosaic, root rot, and rust.
  • Aquilegia is rabbit resistant.
Golden Columbine, Aquilegia chrysantha
Golden Columbine, Aquilegia chrysantha

Aquilegia Propagation

  • To germinate Aquilegia seed, sow seed in trays or pots then refrigerate at 40°F for 3 to 4 weeks; remove and keep at 65°-70°F; seeds will germinate in 22 to 30 days.
  • Aquilegia readily reseeds itself.
  • Space different color varieties at least 50 feet apart to prevent new plants from crossbreeding.
  • Divide or replace plants every 3 or 4 years.

Aquilegia Varieties to Grow

  • Biedermeir Group hybrids to 1½ feet.
  • McKana Giant hybrids grow to 2½ feet tall.
  • Music hybrids grow to 1½ feet tall.
  • Aquilegia caerulea: Rocky Mountain columbine grows to 2½ feet tall with up-facing blue-and-white flowers.
  • A. canadensis: native to eastern and central North America has red-and-yellow flowers.
  • A. chrysantha. golden columbine: Showiest species with upright clear yellow flowers; plant grows to 5 feet tall.
  • A. flabellata: Japanese fan columbine to 1½ feet tall.

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