The enduring charm of Aquilegia

I’ve moaned about the limitations of gardening in a true woodland setting (Rocks! Tree roots! More @$#*?! rocks!) but there are a great many wonderful benefits, one of which is the variety of native spring flowers that plant themselves and then pop up reliably every spring independent of my ministrations. Starting around the first week of May, they make the most of the early spring sunshine, living their entire lives in the brief weeks before the overhead canopy fills in with leaves and throws shade over everything. We have drifts of blue-white hepatica, white and burgundy Trilliums and yellow Trout lilies that light up the leaf-strewn forest floor. And now we’re just starting to get Aquilegia, otherwise known as Columbines.

Aquilegia in Southern Ontario

Wild Canadian columbine growing along a roadside on the Bruce Peninsula in southwestern Ontario.

Aquilegia canadensis (known as Canadian columbine and Eastern Red Columbine) grows like a weed along some of the roads in this part of the world. But not so much on our property. So after strewing seeds of this native plant in every patch around our cottage that looked like it might be appealing to these darlings, I finally got some plants sprouting in (of all places) a thick blanket of moss that curls over the edge of a huge slab of limestone. I think there may be about half an inch of soil under that moss. But what soil! This is the product produced over eons of time during which leaves have fallen and eventually broken down into rich loam.

Aquilegia in a woodland garden

My seed-grown Aquilegia, sprouting from a blanket of moss on a large boulder.

Finally getting some native Columbine to grow on our property has been a small victory. This is probably a natural reaction to the fact that the flower seems to grow everywhere else on the Bruce Peninsula–in a ditch, along a construction site, clinging to the edge of a vertiginous cliff (see below). The Bruce is not its only home, either. It’s native to most of western Canada from Saskatchewan to New Brunswick and pretty much everywhere in the United States east of the Rockies.

Wild Columbine growing along the top edge of a cliff (above left) and along the shoulder of a dirt road on the Bruce Peninsula in southwestern Ontario.

Aquilegia canadensis is distinctive for its red-to-pink-to-yellow colouring as you can see. The blue, violet, white and pink Columbines you’ll find at garden nurseries, grown in pots, are often Aquilegia vulgaris which originated in Europe. These cultivars are just as hardy as our natives, thriving in zones 3 to 8. Having said that, you can find wild blue, violet and white columbines in parts of eastern U.S. A lot of these are naturalized European columbines that escaped long ago. As I said, these flowers may look delicate but they’re hardy all right.

A group of red and white Aquilegias.
Aquilegia Swan Red White. Photo courtesy of Ball Horticultural Company.

There’s a variety of Columbine for every colour theme and garden style, available in pots or as seed. For instance, Aquilegia Swan Red and White (above) makes a great ‘thriller’ in a container planting, given its eye-catching colourway and height, growing upwards of 2 feet. Try surrounding it with shorter fine-leaved flowers and ferns such as Bird’s Foot (Pteris parkeri) for a frothy, cottage-garden effect.

Ontario-based Ferri Seeds has over 20 types of Aquilegia, sold as seed, as well as Aquilegia seed mixes. They offer Aquilegia canadensis and one of my favourite black flowers, Black Barlow Columbine, which has a wonderfully ruffly double bloom. I grew Black Barlow in my old, urban garden years ago and loved its wild head of long, tousled petals, looking not unlike the hairstyle sported by Edward Scissorhands.

Whether you decide on growing native Aquilegia or a cultivar, this plant is easy to introduce to the garden and it will reliably self seed. Just give it well draining soil in part shade. If you want flowers this spring, buy them in pots from your favourite nursery. If you’d prefer a more meadow-y look and can wait until next year, direct sow seed in the fall. Just scatter the seed on fresh, weed-free soil and press down on them slightly. No need to dig little holes for each seed. You’ll be rewarded with blooms next spring, from late May into early June.

Oh! And, by the way, the hummingbirds and hawk moths will thank you.

One thought on “The enduring charm of Aquilegia

  1. Pingback: Shopping tip: natives vs. not-so-native | Ministry of the fence

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