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Genus Columbines (Aquilegia) for the Garden

Aquilegia is a genus of perennials in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, that also includes monkshood, anemone, and delphinium.  It is native to many areas of the Northern Hemisphere including the US, where it grows in meadows and woodlands.  The plants are valued for their mounding foliage and unique spurred flowers.  Growing from a thick taproot, the plants produce an attractive mound of pinnately compound long petioled leaves with fan-shaped leaflets under 1″ long.  The nodding or upright flowers  appear in spring to summer and have  a central column of stamens surrounded by five petals with long spurs and five petal-like sepals that may or may  not be the same color as the petals.  Aquilegias tend to be short lived but some reseed. The genus name, Aquilegia, comes from the Latin word aquila meaning eagle and perhaps refers to the resemblance of the spurs to the talons of an eagle. Columbines  prefer rich, moist, well-drained soil and light to moderate shade. Propagation is by division or seed but only the species breeds true. Natural hybridization occurs readily  if different species are put together.   Leafminers often produce unsightly tunnels in the leaves early in the season but removal of the affected leaves results in the production of new leaves and the beauty of the plant is restored.  Columbines mix well with many other spring and early summer blooming plants.  They start blooming with the tulips and  complement spring favorites such as iris, peonies, lupines, cranesbills, bluestar, baptisia,  Virginia bluebell, and wild blue phlox.   They are  a “must” for a cottage garden.   Small species are a good choice for rock gardens.


Recommended columbines for the garden:

Alpine Columbine (A. alpina)

This vivigorous native of Switzerland has gray-green foliage with leaflets divided into linear lobes and nodding, 1-3″ wide wide flowers with /4-1″ long, straight to recurved spurs.  The  var. alba has white flowers.

Height: 1-3′

Flower Color: Bright blue or blue and white

Bloom Time: Early summer to summer

Hardiness: Zones 3-8


Rocky Mountain Columbine (A. caerulea)

Heat and drought resistant,  this species has upward facing 2-3″ wide flowers with straight or outward flaring  1-2″  long  spurs

Height: 1.5-2.5′

Flower Color: Blue and white

Bloom Time: Spring to early summer

Hardiness: Zones 3-8


Wild Columbine (A. canadensis)

Native to Eastern US,, wild columbine blooms for 4-6 weeks and has  several nodding, 1.5″ wide flowers per stem with 1″ long curved spurs.

Height: 1-2′

Flower Color: Yellow sepals, red petals

Bloom Time: Late spring to early summer

Hardiness: Zones 3-8


Golden Columbine (A. chrysantha)

Native to  Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico golden columbine is  freely branched and has upright flowers 2-3″ across with spreading, hooked 1-2.5: long spurs. ‘Silver Queen’ has white flowers.

Height: 2.5-3.5′

Flower Color: Pale yellow sepals, darker yellow petals

Bloom Time: Spring to early summer

Hardiness: Zones 3-9


Fan Columbine (A. flabellata)

This native of Japan has broad, blunt-lobed leaflets and nodding 1.5″ flowers, with short recurved spurs.  ‘Alba’ has white flowers ‘Nana’ is dwarf form.

Height: 8-18″

Flower Color: Purplish blue to lilac sepals, yellow tipped, lilac petals

Bloom Time: Spring to late spring

Hardiness: Zones 3-9


Crimson Columbine (A. formosa)

Native to western North America from the West Coast to the Rocky Mountains this species  has pendent, spurred flowers 1.5 to 2 inches long.

Height: 2-4′

Flower Color: Red to orange sepals, yellow petals

Bloom Time: Spring to early summer

Hardiness: Zones 3-7


A. glandulosa

This native of Siberia has narrow leaflets and nodding to semierect 1.75″ flowers with spreading sepals, and very short reflexed spurs.

Height: 12″

Flower Color: Bright blue

Bloom Time: Spring to late spring

Hardiness: Zones 3-10


A. x hybrida

There are many hybrids of columbine and one of the most famous is the ‘Biedermeier’ strain that features many colors with white-tipped petals on compact 1.5′ plants  Another outstanding strain is “McKana Giants” that are long spurred and bicolored  including lilac and white, red and yellow, amd shades of pink on 2.5′ tall plants.

Height: 1.5-3′

Flowers Color: Various including bicolors

Bloom Time: Spring to early summer

Hardiness: Zones 3-9


A. longissima

Native to Texas and Arizona this species has  fragrant, nodding flowers with  four to six inches long stright spurs.

Height: 1-3′

Flower Color: Pale yellow

Bloom Time: Early summer

Hardiness: Zones 4-9


A. skinneri

Native to New Mexico and Mexico, this columbine has branching stems with thin blue-green leaves and nodding 1.5 ” flowers  with long straight spurs.

Height: 2-3′

Flowers Color:  Yellow green spreading sepals and petals

Bloom Time: Spring to early summer

Hardiness: Zones 3-10


A. viridiflora

This native of Siberia and China has 3/4″ nodding fragrant flowers with short straight or sightly curved spurs in loose clusters of 3-7.

Height: 12-18″

Flowers Color: Light green sepals and yellow green to brownish purple petals

Bloom Time: Late spring to early summer

Hardiness: Zones 3-8


Granny’s Bonnet (A. vulgaris)

Also called European crowfoot, and garden columbine, this species has 1.5-2″ nodding flowers with very short recuved spurs ending in a knob.

Height: 1.5-3′

Flower Color:  Various; purple; violet, purplish red, crimson, pink, white

Bloom Time:Spring to early summer

Hardiness: Zones 3-10



Recommended Reading:

Herbaceous Perennial Plants: A Treatise on their Identification, Culture, and Garden Attributes