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Plant Spotlight: Columbine (Aquilegia)

Updated on May 28, 2015
LisaRoppolo profile image

Lisa is a writer & gardener with an extensive knowledge of plants and plant care. Her articles focus on easy care tips for home gardeners.

Columbine Origins

Native to North America this herbaceous perennial can be found in the wild in woodland areas, meadows and rocky areas. Closely related to baneberry and monkshood (both of which also grow in the same areas) there are 60 to 70 different species of Columbine that come in a wide range of colors, sizes and petal styles. Most petals are single, star-shaped with either 5 or 7 points. Some come in double-flowering varieties and others come with bonnet type flowers. All varieties have downward facing flowers or "nodding" flowers on clover-like leaves.

Columbine Giant in Pink
Columbine Giant in Pink | Source

Columbine Care and Growth Habits

These easy plants do well in Zones 3 through 9 and will grow to mature height from 12 inches to 20+ inches depending on the variety. All perform their best in partial shade, but can tolerate full sun if given adequate moisture. They are not fussy about soil PH, only that it must be well-draining. Once established, Columbine can tolerate drought conditions. It blooms in late spring and early summer.

One of the best features of this perennial is that it does not require any winter protection and if left to form seeds, will readily self-sow. If planted near a different variety, they will often cross-breed and produce interesting hybrids.

To start plants from seed, the best time to sow is in the fall for the following spring/summer season. The seeds need a cold period in order to germinate properly. If you are impatient and don't want to wait that long, you can find several varieties for sale at your local nursery or garden center. These plants are already on their second year of growth and will produce blooms for you.

They aren't plagued by many pests, but do occasionally attract leaf miners, which do minimal damage.

Columbine "William Guinness"
Columbine "William Guinness" | Source

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Common Columbine Varieties

There are literally dozens of different types on the market today, it is hard to chose!

Here are some of the most popular and common:

  • McKanna's Giant: Large plants that can get above 20 inches tall with multi-colored blooms.
  • William Guinness: Single blooms of dark purple/maroon.
  • Black Barlow: Double blooms in maroon shades.
  • Colorado Blue: Cobalt blue single blooms.
  • Crimson Star: Bright red single blooms with white centers.
  • Wild Columbine: Red/Orange blooms found wild in woodland and meadow areas with an intense nodding habit on streamlined flowers.

Columbine "William Guinness"
Columbine "William Guinness" | Source

Garden Applications

  • Because it attracts pollinators, hummingbirds and butterflies, it fits in well in wild flower gardens or butterfly gardens.
  • It is a perfect compliment for a cottage-type garden with it's graceful, nodding habit.
  • Great in containers.
  • Perfect for rock gardens because of it's drought tolerance once established.
  • A great front-of-the-border plant for part-shade areas.
  • Good for planting along edges of walkways for people to enjoy it's unusual-looking blooms.

Medicinal Uses

I would not recommend ingesting this plant unless certain precautions are taken: use the petals or leaves only in moderation. Do not consume the seeds or roots due to the toxic nature of these parts.

Native Americans used the flowers in a salad-type application raw with other foraged greens. The flowers are supposedly very sweet tasting.

Giant Columbine in white
Giant Columbine in white | Source

Did You Know?

The Colorado Blue Columbine (sometimes also called the Rocky Mountain Blue Columbine) is the state flower of Colorado. It was made the official state flower in 1899, voted on by Colorado school children.

In 1925, laws were passed in Colorado banning harvesting the plants in the wild, on public lands and without permission from property owners on private lands.

The Columbine has a Rich Mythology

When researching this plant to create this article, I had no idea of the rich and interesting mythology surrounding this plant.

In Greek and Roman culture, Columbines were the symbol of the goddess Aphrodite (Venus in Roman culture). Aphrodite was the goddess of love and fertility. It is thought the reason behind assigning this flower to her is because of the phallic-like properties of the wild flowers.

In Norse culture, Columbines were associated with the goddess Freya, who is the Norse goddess of love and fertility. One can conclude probably for the same reasons the Greeks and Romans assigned this plant to Aphrodite.

In Celtic culture, the flowers were supposed to open doorways to other worlds (probably due to the toxic effects of the seeds and roots if ingested!).

Early Christians used Columbine to symbolize and praise the Holy Spirit. The numbers 5 and 7 are strong symbolic numbers in Christianity and the petals of the 5 pointed Columbine flowers are reminiscent to 5 nesting doves. The English name Columbine means little-dove or dove-like, which reinforce this Christian symbolism.

Wild Columbine
Wild Columbine | Source
Giant white Columbine in my part-shade border
Giant white Columbine in my part-shade border | Source

Columbine Recap

This unique little flower is often over-looked by many, but is super easy to grow and care for. It makes a great plant for part-shade applications and come in a wide variety of colors, bringing some much needed hues to shady spots. It performs well in drought conditions once established and looks stunning in rock gardens. I highly recommend trying this plant out in your home garden.

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    • LisaRoppolo profile image

      Lisa Roppolo 3 years ago from Joliet, IL

      I love them and after writing this hub, decided I wanted more!

    • blueheron profile image

      Sharon Vile 3 years ago from Odessa, MO

      These are truly some of the most beautiful flowers for the spring garden! I have several Crystal Star Columbines getting ready to bloom from seed sown last spring. I am so excited!