How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Columbine Flowers
Ready to grow columbine plants? Botanically known as Aquilegia, this genus of around 70 species comes packed with a variety of colorful plants. They look stunning planted in groups and great on their own. Gardening expert Madison Moulton takes a look at these popular perennials as well as everything you need to get them to thrive in your garden.
The columbine plant (Aquilegia spp.) is the ideal perennial for your flower beds. The tall stems feature delicate flowers in an incredible range of colors and shapes across nearly 70 species. But don’t let its delicate look fool you – Aquilegia is hardy, tolerates a wide range of growing conditions, and is resistant to several pests and diseases.
Beyond their appearance, columbine flowers are beloved by many pollinators that flock to the plants in spring and summer. Flower beds filled with Aquilegia attract bees and butterflies en masse. You may even spot a hummingbird or two.
These plants are standouts on their own, but look even better when planted in a group. As the flower stalks reach high above the foliage, they are great for mixed planting with other leafy plants. The flowers will emerge from packed beds to tower over the foliage and add a pop of color. No matter where you plant your columbine, you and the pollinators will undoubtedly enjoy their stunning flowers.
Columbine Plant Overview
Plant Type Perennial
Species Aquilegia spp.
Native Area North America, Europe, Asia
Hardiness Zone USDA 3-9
Season Spring and Summer
Exposure Partial Sun/Light Shade
Plant Spacing Variety Dependent
Planting Depth Variety Dependent
Height 6 inches to 3 feet
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests Leaf Miner
Diseases Powdery Mildew
Maintenance Low to Moderate
Soil Type Loam or Sandy Well-draining Soil
Attracts Bees, Butterflies, Hummingbirds
Plant With Poppies, Phlox, Foxgloves
Aquilegia’s journey to becoming a home garden staple is an incredibly long one, beginning 40,000 years ago when the world looked incredibly different from what it does today.
The story begins around Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where the ancestors of these modern plants originate. Just three ancestral species form the makeup of all modern Aquilegia species from these two regions. So how did they end up in North America?
Archaeologists believe the area of Beringia, a stretch of ocean between Russia and Alaska/Canada, was once traversable land that connected Asia and North America. This suggestion emerged after Late Pleistocene animal remains were discovered on the islands of the Bering Sea in the 19th century. Further research has suggested the existence of a Bering land bridge that both people and plants crossed between 10 000 and 40 000 years ago.
Columbine was one of the many plants that made this journey from continent to continent. Genetic studies show the Asian ancestral species Aquilegia viridiflora made its way to Alaska, spreading from there to other parts of Canada and the United States.
As it moved through parts of the continent, the plant evolved into the many variations we see today. The colors and shapes of the flowers modified themselves to attract pollinators and facilitate the spread of the genus.
Columbines changed their color to flowering in blue, in order to attract bees and butterflies in particular. Yellow columbines changed shapes to allow hawk moths to reach the nectar. The columbine’s red flowers produce sweeter nectar to favor hummingbirds. Each species adapted to the pollinators in their area in order to spread, allowing them to survive the 10,000-year journey into the modern day.
Today, we have around 70 species of columbine across the world, thanks to this long process of evolution. They are largely grown as ornamental perennials in home gardens and are particularly popular in North America where they withstand colder winter temperatures well.
Horticulturalists have also developed several hybrids with different shapes and colors to choose from. There are also Aquilegias of varying heights and structures to suit different types of planting. No matter your garden space and design – formal or informal, large or small – you’ll certainly find a columbine flower suitable for you.
Columbine is most commonly propagated by seed. If left alone, the plants will self-sow by spreading their seeds to nearby soil. However, if you’re looking to save the seeds to plant in a different part of your garden, or in a pot, simply collect the seeds from the flowers once they have dried out.
Sow seeds indoors in winter or directly in the garden in spring once the weather warms. As these plants are cold-hardy, you can also plant them in summer to establish themselves before frost sets in.
If you’re planting seeds from a native variety, the new plant should be identical to the parent. Seeds from hybrid plants will not look the same as the parent, but will still produce stunning flowers. Growing these seeds also has an element of surprise to it that makes the process more exciting. You never know what kind of flowers you will get until the blooms emerge.
These plants cross-pollinate successfully, with some types becoming more dominant than others. The more you propagate from seed, or the more you leave your plants to self-seed, the more similar the flowers will become over time. Some colors are also more dominant than others, so plants with different color flowers left to propagate may eventually take on the dominant color after several seasons.
Dividing is also an option for propagation. However, this method is not recommended. The root systems do not like to be moved and do not respond well to disturbances. The roots are incredibly fragile and the plant will struggle to establish if they are damaged in the process.
If you do choose to divide, loosen the soil well around the plant to pull out the roots without any breaking off. Use a sharp tool to cut directly through the center roots without pulling apart and replant immediately. It’s best to have the new planting sites prepared before starting to limit the time the roots spend out of the ground.
Seeds can either be sown indoors in late winter (about 1-2 months before the last frost date), outdoors in early spring, or in summer in cooler regions to allow the plants to establish before winter. They make great stand-alone flowers, and can also be a very beautiful accent flower when planted underneath certain types of trees.
Sowing Seeds Indoors
When sowing seeds indoors, start with a tray filled with a seed starting mix. You can purchase from a nursery, online, or you can make your own using 2 parts coconut coir or peat moss, 1 part perlite, and 1 part vermiculite. Seed starting mixes are designed to be airy and well-draining while retaining enough moisture to facilitate germination, making them an important part of the process.
Moisten the soil mix in the tray before sowing. Sprinkle the seeds over the soil and press them down gently to ensure contact. They do not need to be covered. Leave the tray in a cool spot until the seed sprouts. They can then be moved to a warmer area in indirect sunlight for further growth. Do not place the tray in direct sunlight as the harsh sun can scorch the tender new leaves.
As the weather warms in early spring, prepare for transplanting by moving your tray outdoors. This acclimatizes the seedlings to outdoor conditions in a process known as hardening off. If the weather is still chilly, or you live in an area with high winds, do this in stages by leaving the tray out for the morning only and bringing it indoors later on.
After about a week, transplant the seedlings out into the garden. Spacing will depend on the variety, as some plants can grow several feet while others only reach a few inches tall and wide. Check the mature size of your specific columbine and space accordingly.
Sowing Seeds Outdoors
In spring or summer, seeds can be sown straight into the ground. Prepare the site by clearing all weeds and loosening the soil several inches down. This improves aeration and allows the tender new roots to establish downwards without too much resistance.
If your soil is not well-draining, amend with sand to improve drainage. Seedlings will struggle to establish in waterlogged soil and will likely rot. Mix in the sand, or another aerating material, at least 10 inches down before sowing.
Sprinkle the seeds over the soil evenly in rows. Press them downwards gently to ensure contact with the soil, but do not cover. Water the area thoroughly and slowly to ensure none of the seeds are displaced.
Once the first few sets of leaves appear, thin out the sprouts. Choose the seedlings with the strongest growth and healthiest looking leaves, removing worse-performing plants nearby. Thin the seedlings to the spacing required for the size of the mature plants. This will ensure you get the healthiest plants possible while preventing overcrowding.
Keep the soil moist in the early stages of growth. Avoid oversaturating the soil as this can suffocate the roots and lead to rot. Once several sets of leaves have developed, you can limit your watering.
How to Grow
When growing columbine, there’s a few important factors to consider that are imperative to get correct. You’ll want to provide enough light, the right soil type, and have the right balance of fertilizer. Climate also plays a part, and may impact where you plant them in your yard. Let’s take a look at the most important factors when growing columbine in your garden.
Columbine plants will be happy in full sun to partial shade but prefer partial shade most. A spot with gentle morning sun and respite from the harsh afternoon sun is ideal. They can also be grown in dappled shade, as long as there is more sunlight than shade to ensure flowering.
These plants can handle some full sun in cooler regions, but shouldn’t be in the sun for more than six hours of the day. They do not handle excessive heat well and struggle in full sun when planted in warmer zones, particularly in summer.
However, full sun is preferable to deep shade. Without sunlight, these plants will not flower successfully and growth will slow dramatically. The more light they get, the more flowers they will produce.
In the early stages of growth, water the plants often to keep the soil moist but not waterlogged. Once established, you can limit this watering to once a week along with the rest of your perennial flowering plants. In areas or seasons with high rainfall, you will not need to water as often, if at all.
These plants will need extra watering in summer as the heat sets in, especially when planted in full sun. Keep an eye out for any wilting foliage or drooping stems that indicate a lack of water. Do not overwater, especially if planted in dense soils, as these plants are quite susceptible to rot.
Columbine is suitable for planting in almost any soil, as long as it is not heavy clay. Dense clay soils hold too much moisture and are likely to result in root rot. Clay soils can be amended with compost and sand to improve drainage before planting to prevent this issue.
Soils on the sandier side are preferred to clay soils, but Aquilegia will grow well almost anywhere. This is one of the reasons this plant is beloved by gardeners – it’s suitable for difficult areas of your garden with poor quality soil where some fussier plants will refuse to grow. As long as the soil is well-draining and kept moist, the plants will be happy.
Climate and Temperature
With ancestors hailing from the icy areas of Alaska and Canada, columbine tolerates cold incredibly well. It can handle a few touches of frost and some chilled soil over winter down to Zone 3, emerging again the following spring. It is not very long-lived, though, and can be planted as an annual that is removed in fall. Columbine will usually only last two or three seasons before it will need to be removed.
It can also handle warm weather well, growing up to Zone 9. However, it prefers milder climates over excessive heat, especially in summer. In hot weather, ensure the plant stays well-watered and protect it from harsh sunlight to prevent stress.
In particularly poor quality soils, the addition of compost should be enough to improve soil structure and nutrient availability. Adding a layer of compost on top of the soil is ideal, as it also acts as a mulch layer that protects the soil from excessive temperatures and keeps weeds down.
You can also mix a few handfuls of compost into the soil before planting. This will provide the plant with the nutrients it needs over the season, limiting your need to fertilize.
If your plants are not performing well, with few flowers or sparse foliage, you can apply a slow-release fertilizer in early spring to last throughout the growing season. Alternatively, apply a liquid fertilizer once a month during flowering. Liquid fertilizers do not improve soil structure and will need to be applied more often, so slow-release options are recommended.
Keep in mind that these plants only last a few seasons, and are best used as biennial plants. Columbines that are not flowering or growing may not be a problem with nutrients, but rather part of the short life cycle of the plant.
Regular weeding is required in the early stages of growth to prevent competition for resources. As the plants self-sow, you may also want to remove these seedlings as they emerge if you’re not looking to grow new flowers. If left alone, the seeds will spread to form carpets of columbine flowers in a range of colors. To stop this spread, you can also deadhead the flowers before they set seed.
Deadheading regularly will encourage the plants to produce more blooms over the season. You can bring these flowers indoors as they last well in a vase, or throw spent flowers on a compost heap. Do not throw any seeds onto the compost heap as they can germinate and spread wherever you use your compost next.
Mulching often in colder zones will protect the roots from harsh winter weather. Use an organic mulching material like compost, straw, grass clippings, or bark chips that will slowly break down into the soil to improve structure.
There are so many stunning columbine varieties that it is far more difficult to choose one than it is to find one suitable for your garden. These are just a few of the many available. There are even unique varieties of columbine with black flowers. You’ll need to check your local nursery to determine which variety is best for your region.
Also known as Eastern Red Columbine, this two-foot-tall plant has captivating red flowers that gently fade into yellow at the ends. It is also known as wild columbine as it can be found growing in the wild across Canada. The long petals droop downwards, holding sweet nectar that attracts a number of pollinators. There are also various cultivars of canadensis that come in different sizes and display different colors.
Swan Burgundy and White Columbine
This is one of the most eye-catching columbines, sporting rich velvety purple sepals and dainty white petals. These petals are streaked with splashes of purple in the center too, connecting the two colors. This is a shorter plant, reaching a height of around 20 inches. They look great in pots but can also hold their own in a bed.
Aquilegia ‘Strawberry Ice Cream’
If you’re looking for variety in shape, Strawberry Ice Cream is the option for you. The downward-facing flowers are rounder and more cup-shaped than others. The sepals and base of the flower are blush pink, fading into white as the flower opens. This variety flowers from late spring into mid-summer, complementing other early summer blooms in perennial beds.
Aquilegia x hybrida ‘McKana Giant’ Mix
Some like uniformity in color in their beds. Others like a clashing mix of everything bright and beautiful. If you’re interested in the latter, you can’t go wrong with these columbines. The upward-facing flowers emerge on three-foot-long stems, displaying a kaleidoscope of color from yellow to soft purple, bright pinks, deep red, and even creamy white.
Aquilegia William Guinness
Another dark purple columbine, William Guinness is ideal for modern gardens. The purple sepals connect in color to the base of the petals that fade into a stark white. These flowers turn upwards to form cupped blooms that have a softer, more rounded appearance than other dark purple varieties.
Colorado Blue Columbine
Aquilegia coerulea is one of the many varieties of blue columbine, with purple-blue sepals and contrasting white petals. The surrounding foliage is bright light green in color, ensuring each part of the plant livens up any space it is placed. This perennial is great for cold climates like Colorado, where it is native.
Pests and Diseases
There are a few pests and diseases to keep an eye out for when growing these plants. However, they are not majorly susceptible to problems and should grow well with the proper preventative measures in place.
The most common pest you may encounter is leaf miner. These flies are attracted to the plant and lay eggs on the underside of the leaves, facilitating their spread. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae eat their way through the leaf tissue, hence the name leaf miner.
This issue is usually not deadly but can cause unsightly marks on the foliage. If left alone, they will eventually do some damage and may even spread to other plants in your garden. To control these pests, pick off the eggs as soon as they are visible or apply neem oil. This will stop the eggs from hatching and suffocate any other pests hanging around.
In terms of diseases, the only issue you will likely encounter is powdery mildew. This fungal disease is common in gardens and can quickly spread from plant to plant. It is more likely to occur in warm, dry weather.
Once you discover powdery mildew, prune all affected foliage and destroy it. This will stop the disease from spreading via wind to the rest of the plant or other parts of your garden. Keep a close eye on your plant and continue pruning until all signs of the problem are gone. You can also apply an organic fungicide, but these can impact the surrounding plants and the local environment, depending on the product you choose.
As there is such a wide variety in the Aquilegia genus, there is also a wide variety of uses for them.
Shorter varieties can fill in gaps in containers or beds well. They also make great border plants as the short, delicate flowers do not tower over those behind them. The foliage is not overpowering, showing off the blooms well despite the smaller stature.
Taller varieties are perfect for interplanting with other perennials or foliage plants. The columbine foliage will typically hang back, allowing the companion to shine, while the flower stalks stretch and tower over the leaves to get the attention they deserve.
These varieties can be used at the back of beds or combined with slightly taller plants that will provide afternoon shade in the hottest parts of the day.
For more informal planting, throw some columbine seeds into your wildflower mix. They will attract amazing pollinators to your garden, benefitting the other plants and the environment at the same time.
If you’d like to bring their beauty indoors, they also make great cut flowers. Toss them in a bouquet with other complementary colors for a feature guaranteed to wow.
While parts of the plant, usually the seeds, have been used medicinally in some regions, many parts of the plant are toxic to humans and should not be ingested. It’s best to stay on the safe side and avoid any uses other than ornamental.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is aquilegia good for bees?
Columbines are great pollinator plants. They attract bees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds. Check your variety and local area to find out which supports bees best. But no matter which you choose, you can be sure they will attract many types of pollinators to your garden.
Is aquilegia hardy?
These plants are hardy down to Zone 3. They handle cold well and can withstand a few touches of frost too. The foliage will die back in the colder seasons, but they should emerge again in spring without any need for winter protection.
When does aquilegia bloom?
Each variety of aquilegia blooms at a different time. All bloom throughout spring and summer, but some have longer flowering seasons than others. In general, you can expect these plants to flower from late spring to early summer.
What does aquilegia mean?
The genus name comes from the Latin word for eagle – aquila. This is due to the spurs extending from the back of the flower that are thought to resemble an eagle’s talons.
Can aquilegia be divided?
It is possible to divide columbine, but not recommended. The roots are sensitive to disturbance and the plant does not respond well to being split. It may begin to die back after replanting, or it will simply stop growing completely.
Propagation is best done by seed. If you do want to divide the plant, despite the risks, ensure the new planting sites are prepared before dividing and try to disturb the roots as little as possible.
Can aquilegia be grown in pots?
Aquilegia is the perfect pot specimen – especially the dwarf varieties. Plant in well-draining soil and keep the pot watered. Keep in mind that soil in containers dries out faster, so they will need water every few days – potentially more often in summer.
Whether you’re looking for drama or a delicate addition to a cottage garden, columbine has you covered. Not only does this plant grow well in many climates and under many environmental conditions, but they are also easy to care for, only requiring regular watering, the occasional deadheading, and mulching along with the rest of your perennial plants. While they are short-lived, lasting just a few years, the seeds will spread on their own to ensure you never run out of gorgeous blooms.