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Growing Columbine Plants (Aquilegia)

Updated on September 12, 2014

Aquilegias, Columbines, Granny's Bonnets, are named - and loved - for their distinctive flower forms. Some, such as A. alpina have hovering winged flowers ("columbus" means dove). Others, such as the extraordinarily beautiful, A. Chrysantha (left), have long spurs (nectar-filled flower extensions), resembling the neck of an eagle ("Aquil" means eagle) while ruffled doubles such as A. 'Grandmother's Garden Group' look like old fashioned grannies' bonnets.

All are gorgeous, but the long-spurred American varieties are best, because they manage to be both airy and architectural.

Aquilegia alpina
Aquilegia alpina

Aquilegia alpina

Alpine Columbine

A lovely compact but graceful wild Columbine with blue-purple, white or pink flowers, Aquilegia alpina is great for semi-shaded rock gardens.

Height is about 45cm (18").

Aquilegia atrata
Aquilegia atrata

Aquilegia atrata

Red Columbine

This is a striking deep red wild columbine, which thrives in light shade. Use for rock gardens and to add depth to meadows.

Aquilegia atrata grows to about 30-60 cm (12" - 18").

Aquilegia Black Barlow
Aquilegia Black Barlow

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Black Barlow'

Black Columbine

Aquilegia 'Black Barlow' is a wonderful dark purple Columbine. Flowers are nodding, double and spurless. Plant it against a lighter background for contrast. For example a golden green grass, such as Carex elata 'Aurea'. Or, add more in the form of black daylilies or late black tulips, for example.

Height is 90cm (3ft).

Clementine Series Columbine

These are a new series of Aquilegia bred to be compact, free-flowering and strong stemmed. Flowers are double or semi-double and outward rather than downward facing. While they do everything it says on the tin, they lack the charm of some of the older varieties.

Aquilegia Clementine Red
Aquilegia Clementine Red

Aquilegia 'Clementine Red'

Darkish red with yellow centers.

Height is only about 50cm (20") so it'll go well with any late flowering red tulips, such as Tulip sprengeri, a crimson species tulip.

Aquilegia Clementine Salmon
Aquilegia Clementine Salmon

Aquilegia 'Clementine Salmon'

Salmon Columbine

A lovely salmon aquilegia with double clematis-like flowers, which fade as they open. It's quite short at 45cm (18").

Aquilegia Clementine White
Aquilegia Clementine White

Aquilegia 'Clementine White'

A useful green-tipped white Columbine with double flowers and a free-flowering habit.

This is a compact Columbine only 50cm tall.

Aquilegia Dove
Aquilegia Dove

Aquilegia 'Dove'

Songbird Series White Aquilegia

A compact white Songbird Columbine with yellow stamens. Height is 60cm (2').

A. 'Dove' is an RHS AGM winner.

Aquilegia Blue Bird
Aquilegia Blue Bird

Aquilegia 'Blue Bird'

Songbird Series Columbine

Aquilegia 'Blue Bird' has large flowers with pale blue spurred outer peals, white inner petals with blue-smudged centers and yellow stamens. Very cottage garden.

Aquilegia Green Apples
Aquilegia Green Apples

Aquilegia 'Green Apples'

Pale Green Clematis-flowered Columbine

One of the prettiest of the so-called Clematis-flowered Aquilegias 'Green Apples' has double and semi-double flowers in delicate shades of green from June to August at least.

Aquilegia Nora Barlow
Aquilegia Nora Barlow

Aquilegia 'Nora Barlow'

While Aquilegia 'Nora Barlow' lacks the long sleek flower spurs of many other aquilegia, it makes up for this with fluffy rounded flowers packed with petals in pastel shades of pink white and green. It probably won't come true from seed, but you'll get some interesting seedlings.

This is a tall Aquilegia at 90cm (3').

Aquilegia Purple Barlow
Aquilegia Purple Barlow

Aquilegia 'Purple Barlow'

Purple Granny's Bonnet

Purple version of Aquilegia 'Nora Barlow' with yellow centers.

Aquilegia Purple Emperor
Aquilegia Purple Emperor

Aquilegia 'Purple Emperor'

Purple Columbine

Simple single spurless purple Aquilegia with bright green foliage.

Aquilegia chrysantha

An American native with large, long-spurred and winged yellow flowers. Vigorous.

Aquilegia chrysantha Yellow Queen
Aquilegia chrysantha Yellow Queen

Aquilegia chrysantha 'Yellow Queen'

This is a lovely fragrant long-spurred yellow Columbine from Mexico. Like its parent, Aquilegia chrysantha it is great in a mixed meadow.

Try it with a May-flowering Daylily (Hemerocallis), such as Hemerocallis Flava, a yellow species variety, which also has a wild grace and simplicity, but contrasting strappy foliage. It will also tolerate a bit of shade.

Aquilegia 'Yellow Queen' grows to 90cm (3').

Buy Aquilegia chrysantha 'Yellow Queen'

Aquilegia Meadow

Yellow Aquilegia Meadow
Yellow Aquilegia Meadow
Aquilegia Pink Barlow
Aquilegia Pink Barlow

Aquilegia 'Pink Barlow'

Pink Columbine

Lovely double pink Columbine with touches of violet and yellow.

Aquilegia ideas

Aquilegia Columbine
Aquilegia Columbine

Spring Bulb Cover Up

Most aquilegias flower from May to June, but their foliage arrives quite a bit earlier. Use it to hide the dying foliage of spring bulbs, such as late daffodils, tulips. Late flowering Double Late Tulips, Parrot Tulips, Lily Tulips, Viridiflora Tulips and Fringed Tulips may even still be flowering when the aquilegias begin to do so in May.

Columbine Meadow
Columbine Meadow

Flower Meadows and Columbines

Columbines are made for meadows, adding height, color and structure. What's more they'll tolerate quite a bit of shade. Here Aquilegia chrysantha is planted in a shady meadow-type border with daisies, geraniums, cornflowers, ferns and grasses.

Columbines in Woodland

As columbines will tolerate dappled shade, they do well under deciduous trees, as long as their canopy isn't too dense. The white or yellow varieties will shine out in the soft light. Try them with Dogtooth Violets (Erythroniums), which also like a bit of shade or even a shade-loving white Allium, such as Allium 'Mount Everest'.

Growing Columbine (Aquilegia) - Top Tips

  • Dappled shade and fertile, loamy, well-drained but moist soil are best for Columbines although they'll tolerate most conditions, except, that is for waterlogged heavy clay soil. Add lots of compost or organic matter if that's what you have. They don't really like to be disturbed so division is difficult. It's probably easier to grow new plants from seed.
  • Most Columbines will self-seed readily, but they'll interbreed to. If you want your varieties to remain true, isolate them. Even then, named hybrids probably won't come true.
  • To grow Columbines from seed, sow anytime from late autumn. Germination is quite slow, taking from six to about 12 weeks. Plant them out in early spring where they are to flower.

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    • Gayle Dowell profile image

      Gayle Dowell 5 years ago from Kansas

      I love the columbine flower. I just have a hard time growing them in our soil.