Growing Columbine Flowers Organically
Common Names: Columbine, Granny's Bonnet, Granny's Nightcap.
Scientific: Cultivars of various Aquilegia species and hybrids.
Family: RANUNCULACEAE (Buttercup Family)
Columbines (genus Aquilegia) are a genus of about 70 species native to the woodlands, meadows and mountainous areas of the cooler parts of North America, Europe and Siberia.
The genus name Aquilegia is derived from two Latin words: aquila meaning eagle and lego meaning to gather. The combined name is in reference to the long spurs of the flowers which look similar to the closing talon of an eagle. Their common name columbine is derived from the Latin word for pigeon, another bird reference.
Columbines are short-lived, clumping perennials with fine, fern-like, bluish-green colored foliage. Most columbine cultivars will grow between one and three feet (30-90 cm) tall. They have a below-ground woody rootstock which they reshoot from after they come out of dormancy at the end of Winter.
Columbines have elegant flowers that reach above the foliage on long thin stems, causing them to nod in the breeze. The flowers often have long petal spurs up to 15 cm (6 inches) in length. The flowers of columbine cultivars come in most colours of the rainbow: reds, yellows, pinks, whites, blues, purples, even ones which are almost black. There are also many two-tone and double flowering cultivars. They flower from late Spring to early Summer, however the exact timeframe for flowering varies depending on what the parent species of the cultivar or hybrid are.
Columbines make spectacular additions to woodland gardens, rockeries and mixed perennial borders.
Uses of columbines
The flowers of columbines are rich in nectar and can be used safely in small quantities as a sweet, edible garnish. The flowers were consumed by Native Americans in moderation to add sweetness to other fresh greens. The nectar-rich flowers are also good for attracting hummingbirds into the garden.
The seed and roots of columbines however are highly toxic and can cause heart palpitations and gastric distress if eaten, which can be fatal. Native Americans also used minute amounts of the root to treat ulcers, however this practice should be avoided as the risk of poisoning is too great.
Propagation and cultivation of columbines
As most columines are woodland plants, they prefer growing in a partially shaded location. They will grow in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 9, however In zones 3 to 5 it is advisable to lay down a thick mulch layer around the columbines to help protect them from continuously freezing and thawing during Winter.
Although adapatable, columbines grow best in rich, moist but well-drained soils and benefit from the addition of a good amount of compost to the soil before planting.
Columbines are normally propagated by seed, although larger clumps of some species can be divided just as they are beginning to come out of their dormancy in early Spring. Plants grown from seed with normally take two growing seasons to flower, however plants grown from divisions may flower in the same growing season if planted early enough.
They will self-sow and spread throughout your garden, preferring to colonize areas that are partially shaded and not too dry. They may become weedy if conditions are ideal. To reduce the numbers of seedlings popping up you can remove the young seed heads. As they are short-lived and only last about 4 years, it is a good idea to let some flowers set seed to allow for the next generation of plants.
Columbines can be started indoors. Columbine seeds germinate best after exposure to cold temperatures and requires cold stratification if the seed are stored inside a heated house. To do this plant the seed in Winter into punnets with moist soil, seal them inside a plastic bag and place into the fridge for 3 weeks. Once the cold stratification process is complete, move the seed to an area that has good light, but no direct sunlight and a temperature of around 70 degree Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) and they will begin to sprout after a few weeks. Once they sprout you should remove the plastic bag but remember to keep them watered regularly. Once the seedlings are several inches tall in Spring they can be planted out into the garden. Take care when transplanting the columbine seedlings as they are quite delicate.
As columbines are temperate plants, it is difficult to get them to grow succefully in the sub-tropics. You have to reverse the seasons by cold stratifying the seeds during early Fall and planting out during late Fall to have any chance of success.
Some species and cultivars of columbines have the tendency to attract aphids into the garden, I'll cover organic control treatments for aphids in a future article. Leaf miners can also be a problem, cut any leaves with white trails on them and dispose of them in a sealed bag placed into the trash to prevent them from spreading.
The flowers of columbines can be deadheaded once they start to wilt, this will encourage them to send out even more flowers giving you the most spectacular of flowering displays.