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Columbine: A Springtime Flower That Arrives on the Wind

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Columbine: A Springtime Flower That Arrives on the Wind

April 17, 2019

The columbines showed up unannounced. Or rather, a columbine. The flower arrived on the wind, seeded itself, and grew in my garden to a height of about 36 inches. With its long, slender stalks and deep purple flowers, that first year it stood at the front of the border nodding its head all through April. The next spring there were two flowers, then four, and this year a circle of seven. The columbines have gathered under the pear tree and bow respectfully every time I walk past.

I think this is the best way to grow columbines—that is, to let them grow themselves. Over the years I’ve tried other approaches—sowing seed or buying transplants—but without much success. Aquilegia is a wildflower, and it wants to grow where it wants to grow.

But I would never say never. Among dozens of species and many more hybrids there is surely a columbine that will be happy in a slightly shady spot in your spring garden (if you live in USDA zones 3 to 9). Try a few varieties and see which return next spring.

Here are some of my favorite columbines:

Mystery Columbine

Columbines with an unknown provenance in my garden.
Above: Columbines with an unknown provenance in my garden.

How to Grow Columbines

Columbine seeds sprout in early spring. Photograph by Nic via Flickr.
Above: Columbine seeds sprout in early spring. Photograph by Nic via Flickr.

Columbines are easy to start from seed (but be aware they probably will not flower until at least their second year of life). Keep soil moist after sowing seeds and be patient; it may take a month for seeds to germinate.

Whether you start with seeds or seedlings, follow these growing tips: Columbines prefer sheltered spots (their slender, elongated stalks need protection from wind) and partial sun.

Columbines: 5 to Buy

Columbines come in a rainbow of colors and and flowers range from ruffly to open-faced.

Dwarf Japanese Columbine

Aquilegia flabellata. Photograph by Takashi M via Flickr.
Above: Aquilegia flabellata. Photograph by Takashi M via Flickr.

A 1-quart pot of Aquilegia Flabellata ‘Nana Alba’ is $6.95 from Sandy’s Plants.

Aquilegia ottonis ssp amaliae

Columbines look like colorful blooming snowflakes. Here Aquilegia ottonis ssp amaliae blooms in Greece. Photograph by Miltos Gikas via Flickr.
Above: Columbines look like colorful blooming snowflakes. Here Aquilegia ottonis ssp amaliae blooms in Greece. Photograph by Miltos Gikas via Flickr.

Nora Barlow Columbine

Columbines can have elaborately ruffled petticoats of petals. Here is &#8\2\16;Nora Barlow&#8\2\17;. Photograph by F.D. Richards via Flickr.
Above: Columbines can have elaborately ruffled petticoats of petals. Here is ‘Nora Barlow’. Photograph by F.D. Richards via Flickr.

Rocky Mountain Columbine

Spotted in bloom in April at Annie&#8\2\17;s Annuals in Richmond, California, Aquilegia caerulea &#8\2\20;Rocky Mountain Columbine&#8\2\2\1; has lavender petals and a white corolla. Photograph by FarOutFlora via Flickr.
Above: Spotted in bloom in April at Annie’s Annuals in Richmond, California, Aquilegia caerulea “Rocky Mountain Columbine” has lavender petals and a white corolla. Photograph by FarOutFlora via Flickr.

Wild Columbine

Wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) by Jay Sturner via Flickr.
Above: Wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) by Jay Sturner via Flickr.

Clementine Columbine

Clementine is a double-flowered columbine (with varieties available in a range of colors). Photograph by F.D. Richards via Flickr.
Above: Clementine is a double-flowered columbine (with varieties available in a range of colors). Photograph by F.D. Richards via Flickr.

For more growing tips, see Columbines: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our curated guides to Perennials 101. For more of our favorite spring flowers, see:

N.B.: Featured photograph by Bob via Flickr.

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