There is a wide range of columbine flowers, all of which are easy to care for and are self-seeding, with flowers blooming after the first year.
Columbine Flower Overview
Columbine Flower Quick Facts
|Origin||North America, Europe, and Asia|
|Type||Herbaceous perennial plant|
|Common Names||Columbines, Granny’s Bonnet, Jester’s Cap|
|Height||15 to 20 inches|
|Light||Full sun to partial shade|
|Watering||Drought-tolerant when established|
There are over 70 different varieties of columbine flower plants, with many more cultivars based on the most popular varieties. They are all surprisingly hardy, considering their delicate look, and require minimal care.
Aquilegia canadensis ‘Eastern Red Columbine’ or ‘Canadian Columbine’
This plant is native to eastern North America, growing wild in woodland and along rocky slopes. It features foliage in a fern style, with long stalks held high above the leaves from which drooping flowers emerge. The flowers are red and yellow, growing up to 2 inches in size. This variety of columbine flowers is exceptionally disease-resistant, as well as rabbit and deer-resistant. It has won the prestigious Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. Though short-lived, this plant self-seeds easily, providing the native areas where it grows with large clumps of the elegant flowers.
Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Clementine Rose’
This columbine flower closely resembles the flower of the clematis plant. It is a cultivar of the ‘Aquilegia vulgaris,’ which is the most popular columbine variety and the one you are most likely to see growing in gardens or nurseries. It has double flowers of up to 1.5 inches in diameter on stems that rise elegantly above the foliage below. Unlike most columbine flowers, the variety does not feature spurs, and it is more compact than most other varieties, making it suitable for planting in containers. This variety has flowers in an appealing medium pink color, though other colors are available in the ‘Clementine’ series, including ‘Clementine White,’ ‘Clementine Blue,’ and ‘Clementine Salmon Rose.’
Aquilegia caerulia ‘Rocky Mountain Columbine’ or ‘Colorado Blue Columbine’
This variety is native to North America, from Montana to New Mexico. It is Colorado’s state flower and is a popular addition to gardens in this region. It grows well in rocky conditions and is drought-tolerant. With 3-inch-wide flowers featuring two-tone blue petals and yellow stamens, this plant is very visually striking. The flowers point upwards on long stems held high above the fern-like foliage. It grows in clumps of up to 24 inches tall, with flowers that bloom for 4 to 6 weeks. This plant requires well-draining soil and will not do well poorly draining soil.
Aquilegia formosa ‘Western Columbine’ or ‘Crimson Columbine’
These elegant nodding flowers bloom on long stems rising above blue-green foliage, in vibrant red with yellow accents. Flowers measure up to 2 inches across, with the plant growing up to 36 inches tall. This variety is rabbit and deer-resistant, though it is frequently affected by leaf miners.
Caring for Your Columbine Flowers
When young, columbine flowers will need to be watered regularly, with the soil never being allowed to dry out. Until the plant is mature, you should aim to keep the soil moist but not soggy, as this will cause the roots to rot. Once established, the columbine flower is fairly drought-resistant, so it will only need to be watered around once a week. In periods of extended drought, you should increase the frequency of watering to account for the lack of rainfall. The plant's tolerance of drought makes it ideal for use in rock gardens or drier climates. Always plant the columbine flower in well-draining soil to ensure any excess water can drain away, as this plant will not like to sit in wet soil.
The columbine flower enjoys full sun or partial shade, depending on the climate. In northern areas where the sun isn’t as intense in the summer months, the plant will happily grow in full sun, and this will help the development of flowers. However, though a sun-lover, this plant doesn’t like to get too hot, and therefore will need a position of partial shade in some climates. If you live in a hot southern climate, plant the columbine in a position where it will get full sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon. This will protect the plant at the hottest time of the day and give it some relief from the high temperature.
The columbine flower is very hardy to low temperatures and can tolerate temperatures as low as -40 °F and -30 °F. It is suitable for planting in a wide range of climates, from hardiness zones 3 to 9. After the first frost, you can mulch over the plant to protect it during the winter months. In summer, the plant can be sensitive to very hot temperatures, so it will need protection in very hot climates. You can offer the plant protection by planting it in a shaded position; this is especially helpful if you can situate the plant in an area where it will be shaded in the afternoon when the sun is at its hottest.
This plant grows easily from seed. If you want to give your seedlings a head start, you can plant them indoors around 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost of the season is expected. Prepare a container with rich potting soil and gently press the seed into the soil with a few inches between each seed. Do not cover the seeds with soil and supply adequate moisture and plenty of light.
Once the seedlings have developed, you can thin out the strongest, repotting them into larger containers or planting them directly in the ground after the last frost. Alternatively, you can sow the seeds outside directly in the ground following the last frost. Use well-draining soil, and thin plants out once seedlings emerge, leaving 1 or 2 feet between each plant to allow sufficient growing space.
Once established, the columbine plant will self-seed easily, giving you a continuous supply of new flowers each year. It is recommended to allow self-seeding as each plant only has a short life span of two or three years; however, if your garden becomes too heavily populated with columbine flowers, you can cut away the seed pods after the flowers fade in summer to prevent self-seeding.
If your plant does not flower in its first year, this is not unusual, as columbine flowers typically only begin flowering in their second or third year when sown from seed. Once the plant is flowering, you can regularly deadhead it to encourage the production of new flowers (Michigan State University- Department of Entomology- Native Plants and Ecosystem Services).
There are over 70 species of columbine flowers that range in colors, including purple, yellow, pink, and blue, in various shades from pastel to bright neon. The flowers are bell-shaped and have spurs (long and thin colorful petal-like structures shooting out of the back of the flower) that resemble the talons of an eagle, which is how the flower came to get its scientific name, as ‘Aquilegia’ is derived from the Latin word ‘aquila,’ which translates to ‘eagle’. Interestingly though, the common name for the flower of ‘columbine’ is derived from the Latin ‘columba,’ which translates to ‘dove,’ a gentle bird that has the opposite connotations of the predatory eagle.
The flowers of the columbine bloom in the middle of spring and are very attractive to hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators, making them a popular choice of plant for birdwatchers. The flowers fade in early summer, though the pretty foliage continues to provide interest for most of the year.
The level of toxicity for the Columbine flower is disputed, with some sources claiming that just coming into contact with the plant could be fatal. The plant does contain carcinogens and aconitum, which can cause problems for the cardiovascular system, though the most typical symptoms from ingesting this plant would be stomach upset and diarrhea.
While all parts of the plant are toxic, the highest concentration of the poison is found in the roots and the seeds. It is known to be toxic to pets, including horses, though fortunately, it is not especially appetizing, and most animals will instinctively stay away from it. The plant is also toxic to humans, and it is an old wives' tale that this plant was once used to induce abortions for unwanted pregnancies. The sap of the plant also contains an irritant, which can cause unpleasant skin symptoms if you come into contact with it. Always wear gloves when handling the plant as a precaution (The Equinest).
This plant is rabbit and deer-resistant, and many varieties are also disease-resistant. It is also not commonly affected by insect infestations. The exception to this is leaf miners, which some varieties of columbine flower are susceptible to. This can be organically controlled with neem oil sprays, which prevent leaf miners from feeding, thereby gradually killing them off. Another way to control leaf miner problems is to cut the plant back to ground level after it has flowered, as this will remove the pests, allowing the plant to regrow free from pests the following year. You can also use neem oil preventatively if your plants are prone to leaf miner infestations.
Which columbine variety do you prefer? Let us know in the comments, and share this page with other flower growers!