How To Grow And Care For Columbine Plants

Pink Columbine plant in bloom
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Most columbine plants are cool season, spring blooming plants with unique flowers. Rising high above the lobed green to gray green foliage are spikes of flowers, usually facing down with elongated narrow spurs reaching behind. However, there are some varieties that face outward or upwards, do not have spurs, or have double flowers. Available in many colors, columbine plants are ideal for shady wooded areas, but some do well as rock garden plants. The erect, dried brown seed heads are comprised of five capsules that burst open to reveal many dark black small seeds. This plant self-seeds and crosses with other columbine plants. Although a short-lived perennial, the self-sowing make it appear that the plants last for years in the garden. Columbine flowers attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and hawk moths. The plant is deer resistant and toxic for humans, dogs, and cats if ingested.

Plant Attributes

Common Name  Columbine or Granny’s Bonnet
Botanical Name Aquilegia spp.
Family Ranunculaceae
Plant Type Herbaceous Perennial
Mature Size 12-36 in. tall, 12-24 in. wide
Sun Exposure Partial Shade
Soil Type Moist but Well-Drained
Soil pH Neutral to Slightly Acidic
Bloom Time Spring, Summer
Flower Color Red, Orange, Yellow, Blue, Purple, Pink, White, and Green
Hardiness Zones 3-8
Native Area North America, Europe, Asia

Care

Light

Depending on the species, these plants like woodland conditions of partial shade or rock garden conditions of full sun.

Soil

Moist but well drained soil for the woodland lovers and very well drained soil for those that prefer rock garden conditions.

Water

Moist except for those that like rock garden conditions, then it is dry.

Temperature and Humidity

Prefer the cool spring temperatures to bloom but foliage will remain in hot summers.

Fertilizer

No fertilizer needed.

Types of Columbine Plants

There are many species in this country and many hybrids/cultivars.

Aquilegia canadensis (Eastern red columbine)

Relatively tall at 2-3 feet, Eastern red columbine has red and yellow flowers with spurs. It is the only red columbine that occurs in eastern Northern America and is a critical food source for the ruby-throated hummingbird in the spring. The species is resistant to leaf miners. There is a cultivar called “Little Lanterns” that is more compact at 10 inches high.

Aquilegia chrysantha (golden columbine)

Although a southwestern native, this plant is highly adaptable and produces yellow flowers with long thin spurs.

Aquilegia flabellata (fan columbine).

A dwarf plant with purple flowers, fan columbine is perfect for rock gardens. There are varieties of this with white, blue, or pink flowers.

Aquilegia viridiflora (chocolate soldier or green columbine)

The flowers are not solid green, they are either yellow green or green and dark purple. An unusual look, reminiscent of hellebores.

Aquilegia vulgaris (common columbine)

Within this species there are many cultivars so flowers can be single or double petaled and in shades of purple, blue, dark rose, rose, pink, white and even very dark purple to black.

Pruning

These plants could be trimmed back after flowering in the summer to prevent self-seeding and to rejuvenate the foliage which might be ratty and marred by leaf miners.

Propagating Columbine Plants

Columbine plants can be propagated by division which is done in the spring. In fact, it is recommended that plants be divided every few years.

  1. Using a garden fork, dig deep along the perimeter of the plant.
  2. Lift up the entire rootstock and place the clump on the ground. No need to remove the soil.
  3. Divide the clump with the garden fork or a sharp knife.
  4. Replant the divisions and keep well-watered until established.

How to Grow Columbine Plants from Seed

Columbine plants self-seed readily but be aware that this plant can cross with other columbine plants so if you have different varieties in the garden, the progeny may have different flower colors.

To grow columbine plants from seed, you can let your original plants disperse their seed on their own or you can collect the seed heads. The seed heads are prominent, they are high above the foliage as inch-long, five-lobed cases. Cut the whole seed heads when they are brown but before they split open and place in a paper bag. Weeks later, when the seed heads have dried even more, split open the casing and remove the seeds.

These seeds need a period of cold stratification—a chilling period—to germinate. When you want to start them, place the seeds in a plastic bag with moist seed starting mix. Place the bag in the fridge for 3-4 weeks. Afterwards, you can start the seeds indoors under lights about 8 weeks before the average last frost or sow directly outside after the last average frost.

Alternatively, sow the seeds in small plastic containers with moist seed starting mix and either put in the fridge, an uncovered cold frame, an unheated porch, or a shed where the temperature remains consistent between 35 to 45 degrees. When the average last frost date has passed, continue to grow outside.

You can also scatter seeds in your garden in the fall and let winter provide the cold stratification.

Commercial seed packets are available. These seeds also need cold stratification.

Potting and Repotting Columbine Plants

Usually, columbine plants are grown in the garden bed, but they can be grown in containers. Depending on the container size, the plants may be cold hardy enough to come back the next year.

Overwintering

These plants die down in the fall and become dormant in the winter.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

The most common pest is leaf miner. The adults look like small black and yellow flies and the larvae look like yellow maggots, which tunnel their way through the middle of the leaves. This tunneling results in silver or white “doodle” marks on the leaves. This will not kill the plant but makes the foliage unsightly. Remove and trash the leaves that are affected. There are no insecticidal sprays for this.

Another common pest is the columbine sawfly, which appears as green caterpillars that can defoliate the plants. Either pick off the caterpillars by hand or use an insecticidal soap. Columbine aphids are very tiny insects that can stunt the foliage. These can be hosed off with a strong water spray.

Gray mold is a fungus that creates a fuzzy gray mold on the plant. Powdery mildew is a fungus that coats the foliage with a gray or white powder. For these, remove any part as soon as it appears and/or spray with a fungicide.

Common Problems with Columbine Plants

In some ways, columbine plants are easy to grow because they self-seed so you will always have a new generation. In other ways, they can be a challenge if you grow many types and expect them to stay the same in terms of flower color and stay in their place. It is most helpful to understand their growth habit and to simply accept leaf miner damage instead of trying to eradicate leaf miners. Here are a few issues that gardeners notice:

The foliage is marked with white or silver streaks. This is the leaf miner damage and unfortunately there are no insecticides for this. You can plant the Eastern red columbine which is resistant, or you can remove infected leaves.

The plant did not bloom. Sometimes when the plants are started from seed, they will not bloom the first year. Be patient and wait a year.

There are too many plants. Pull the plants when they are small in the spring and then to prevent this, cut off the seed heads when they are green, before they disperse the seeds.

The plants bloomed but the flower color is not what the seed packet says it is. If you have more than one variety in your garden, it is possible that they have crossed pollinated, and the resulting progeny reverted to the flower colors of the grandparents. If you want a particular color, you are going to have to plant only one type or pull those that are the wrong flower color every year until you get a stand of columbine plants with the preferred flower color.

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