Columbine flowers are a beautiful addition to your outdoor garden. These unique flowers come in various shades, from periwinkle to yellow to orange. Columbines are native to woods and slopes of North America.
They are hardy wildflowers that can survive harsh conditions in the wild, but they can sometimes feel tricky to get started in your backyard. Here, I’ve gathered some helpful information and condensed it into a guide to help you get the most out of your columbines.
- Columbine Flowers
- Varieties of Columbine
- Care Conditions for Columbines
- Potential Problems
- To Deadhead or Not?
- How to Grow Columbine Flower
- Growing Tips for Columbine Flowers
- General Columbine Care
- Propagating Columbine Flowers
- How to Grow Columbine Throughout the Season
- Columbine: End of Season Care
- General Maintenance
- Best Uses for Columbine
- Is Columbine Toxic?
There are many varieties of columbine in purples, pinks, and other shades.
I grew up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Columbines were everywhere in the spring or summer, usually in shades of blue and purple. They would line the hillsides and could be spotted at surprising altitudes.
Columbine flowers are also called Aquilegia. There are actually over 60 different species. Many of them attract beautiful garden visitors like butterflies and hummingbirds. They are a splendid choice for a rock garden and are surprisingly easy to care for.
The blooms on this plant can resemble a jesters’ cap. They are very effective at attracting hummingbirds, and it can put any bird watcher in a great mood. It’s a herbaceous perennial with an airy design with very pretty clover-like foliage. The blooms on this plant are available in many shades and colors, and most plants have spurs on them. The spurs are narrow, long strips that stream horizontally from behind every bloom. The plant usually blooms for roughly four weeks, and they start blooming in the middle of spring.
Columbine flowers are perennials, meaning they last several years. The first year, columbines will not flower, but after that, they can provide up to three years of flowers. Columbines are also excellent at self-spread, which is one of the reasons they are such a common wildflower in places like Colorado.
Varieties of Columbine
There are many columbine varieties available for you to buy, and each one has a slightly different color to it. The most popular varieties include but are not limited to:
- Aquilegia caerulea: Better known as Rocky Mountain Columbine, it offers fern-like foliage with a greenish-grey coloring to it. It produces very bright white flowers that have blue-violet sepals with yellow stamens. At full maturity, it gets up to 24-inches tall.
- Aquilegia Crimson Star: This plant produces very long spurs that trail away from the flowers, and it has bi-coloring to it with reddish-crimson and white. At full maturity, this plant tops out at 24 to 30 inches.
- Aquilegia flabellata Nana: You’ll get a dwarf cultivar that has white and light blue bi-colored flowers. It only gets between six and nine inches tall at full maturity.
- Aquilegia McKana Hybrid: Long spurs with bi-colored flowers in shades of white, blue, yellow, and red are common with this plant. They also offer purple and pink combinations, and this is a taller plant that will grow up to 30-inches tall.
- Aquilegia vulgaris Clementine Salmon-Rose: If you want a variety that blooms for a long time, this is it. You get salmon-colored blooms that face upward, and they look like blossoms on a double-flower clematis. They top out at 14 to 16-inches high.
Care Conditions for Columbines
In order to help you grow columbines in your garden, I’ve put together a helpful guide. I’ve broken columbine care into sections, so you can keep track of the important elements that come together to give life to a successful columbine.
Columbines need some sun, but they’ll wither in too much heat.
Columbines are a high altitude plant that don’t appreciate too much heat. They thrive in partial sun at mild to low temperatures. Direct sun can cause sunburn and wilting, so it’s important to give your columbine some shade.
One of the good things about these perennials is that they don’t need much extra attention in the winter. Though some people choose to cover them with mulch for protection, it usually isn’t necessary to do anything special for your columbines before winter hits.
Come summer, they should revive again on their own as they would on the mountainsides.
Columbines are drought resistant, making them an easy garden plant.
As I mentioned before, columbines are quite hardy plants and can survive harsh conditions. They are a drought-tolerant plant. Though columbines won’t thrive without regular watering, a forgetful gardener won’t be able to kill them with a week or two of forgetting to water.
When you do water your columbines, it’s important that you have a good drainage system in place. Columbines are easier to overwater than underwater, so it’s important to plant them in well-draining soil where the roots won’t suffer from root rot.
You should water columbines only when the soil is starting to dry from the previous watering. If the soil is still wet, wait a day or two more before watering. However, you shouldn’t let the soil completely dry out between every watering.
Columbines are a common wildflower that can spring up in fields or on rocky slopes.
Wild columbines can be found on rocky ledges or high altitude plains. Because of this, they aren’t too picky about what kind of soil you use, as long as it has good drainage and you don’t overwater.
However, it’s a good idea to mix soil with compost for the columbines in your garden, since this will help them thrive as they grow.
When planting columbines, it’s easy to start from seeds. Place each seed in a small indent about a foot or two apart. Don’t cover the seeds and water lightly. If you’re moving a potted columbine to your garden, plant each flower about two feet apart and allow a few days for the roots to settle before watering.
Like any plant, there are some problems that can inhibit the growth of your columbine flowers. Here are a few important things to watch for as you care for your garden.
Columbines attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and they aren’t plagued by many pests.
Columbines aren’t susceptible to many pests, but they can attract leaf miners. These bugs won’t destroy a columbine, but they can eat the leaves and make the plant look worn-out and damaged.
If you have leaf miners, you can use a pesticide or spray neem oil on the leaves to deter these pests.
One of the great things about columbines if you live in the mountains is that they are deer-resistant. For my family in Colorado, deer are a common threat to the garden, so it’s a huge benefit to have a flower that won’t get eaten.
Columbines can’t withstand high temperatures for long.
Another common problem for columbine flowers is too much heat. These are high altitude plants that will wither in intense heat.
Usually this is easy to solve; you just need to make sure that you plant your columbines in the shade. If you live in a hot climate, you’ll want your plants to be mostly shaded, while in cooler climates you can place them in partial sun.
Native to high mountains, columbine plants can survive through cold winters to bloom again the next year.
Luckily, columbines are fairly resistant to cold. In fact, you can usually plant them before the last frost of the season. Come summer, they will still be able to grow.
Once the weather begins to cool down in the fall, the columbines will die for the season. However, they are generally able to withstand the winter frosts and snows and will reappear the next spring and summer.
That being sad, columbines do need some warmth and sun. If you live in an especially cold climate, make sure to give the columbines plenty of sun so they don’t frost over every night.
Too much water can kill your columbines. These plants are fairly hands-off!
It’s much more common for columbines to be overwatered than underwatered. An overwatered columbine will develop root rot and will begin to wilt.
You’ll notice especially that the leaves seem to droop and may start falling off, and the flowers won’t bloom as beautifully as they should.
To prevent overwatering, water only once the soil has begun to dry out, and make sure it is a well-draining soil that won’t retain too much moisture near the roots.
To Deadhead or Not?
Columbines will spread and grow on their own if you choose not to deadhead.
Finally, you’ll need to decide whether or not to deadhead your columbines. These plants can grow well on their own, but a bit of pruning can lead to healthier and more focused growth.
Deadheading means cutting off the flowers once they have finished blooming. This can make the plant last for more years and it can help you maintain a carefully structured garden.
However, if you don’t deadhead, the flowers will self-seed and spread around the garden. Your plants may die a year sooner, but only after first planting seeds for future plants. If you want your garden to look like a field of wildflowers, I suggest foregoing deadheading.
Of all the varieties and colors, which columbine will you choose to fill your garden?
How to Grow Columbine Flower
You can start this plant indoors or outdoors. If you want to start the seeds inside, do so in the late winter months. Outside, you should wait until the last average frost date during the spring has gone by in your area and put them directly in your garden. It’s also possible to sow your seeds after the summer heat starts to wane because this will give them a few weeks to establish themselves before the first frost comes around.
Lightly moisten your potting soil if you want to start them indoors. Outside, you should work your soil down about six inches below the ground level until it takes on a crumbly texture. Add leaf mulch or sand to help loosen the soil and improve the drainage as needed.
Sprinkle your seeds on the soil’s surface and gently press them into the soil. Don’t cover them. If your seeds are growing indoors, you’ll set them in a cooler place until the seed leaves start to appear. Once they appear, you can move them all into indirect sunlight. You should be very careful if you place them in a windowsill because the glass can concentrate the sunlight that comes through and cause it to scorch your new seedlings. Don’t oversaturate the soil but keep it evenly moist.
When the plant’s first true leaves start to appear, you can very gradually acclimate your seedlings that you started indoors to your conditions in your garden by setting them outside for one hour the first day before bringing them back in. On the second day, they can stay out for two hours, and so on for three or four days in a row. You’re now ready to transplant them in your garden.
When you plant or transplant them outdoors, you should pick a location that is full sun to partial shade. The soil should drain well, and you want to do a pH test on the soil. When you get your plants in the garden, you should give the young plants more moisture without saturating the soil. When the weather starts to warm up, you should water weekly when it doesn’t rain.
Growing Tips for Columbine Flowers
There are a few things you can do to ensure that your plants get off to a strong start and grow healthy. They include:
- Space your plants like your seed packet instructions say to do. This will inhibit humidity buildup that can lead to a fungal infection.
- Chill your seeds overnight before you plant them to jumpstart the germination process.
- If you have a favorite variety of columbine flower, don’t plant it close to other cultivars because it’s easy to cross pollinate them.
- Provide the sail with adequate drainage because standing water during the winter months is likely to cause the rootstock to rot when they’re dormant.
General Columbine Care
If you buy this plant in containers, make sure you plant them at the same depth when you put them in the ground as they are in the containers. Planting them any deeper than they were could lead to crown rot. The plants should be one to two feet apart, and be sure that you mulch the plants to help them conserve water during the hotter summer months.
One important thing you want to decide on early is whether or not to deadhead the plants. You don’t have to, but they’ll self-seed if you don’t. It also pulls energy away from the plants so they decline and die off around three years after you plant them.
There is a tradeoff to not deadheading through. Since they self-seed, you can easily save a decent amount of money by starting them from seed instead of buying them in pots at a nursery. You have to wait a year for flowers if you go this route, and not deadheading will give you plenty of self-sown replacement plants.
At the end of the season, you should cut the stalks down to the ground. The stalks will regrow next spring, and any plants that are self-seeded will also come up at the same time.
Propagating Columbine Flowers
These plants grow very readily from seed. You can potentially divide the plants to create new ones, but the foliage and rootstock are very fragile. This means that they most likely won’t survive the process. Since this is a very short-lived perennial, the plants will only live for around three years. However, it also self-sows, so if you let the new seedlings take hold, you’ll get generations of blossoms for years to come.
Take note that native plants sow seeds that are identical to the parent plant. The seeds of any hybrid species could or couldn not produce plants of the same quality as the parent plants, an the colors will vary. Also, any plants that grow close to one another are very likely to cross-pollinate, and this can alternate the hues on the new flowers even more. In turn, you could have more of one color over the other.
How to Grow Columbine Throughout the Season
Growing this plant isn’t a huge challenge if you get the growth conditions correct. The following quick points will help you get off to the correct track to encourage healthy flowers.
Depending on the species, this full sun perennial will grow around 18-inches wide and between one and three feet tall. It’ll form a mounding, soft clump of greenish-blue foliage that is deeply lobed, and it comes up early in the spring. The spurred flowers come up in a large array of colors, and they’re usually bi-colored. The flowers stick up above the foliage from the center of the plant.
Once they flower, you can cut the foliage back to encourage fresh, new foliage clumps to emerge. In areas where the summer months are hot in a full-sun position, foliage can stay dormant before coming back in the fall. Seedlings can seed themselves back into the cracks between walls or rocks and stay green throughout mild winter conditions.
Staking and Fertilizing
You shouldn’t have to stake your flowers to keep them upright. However, if you plant them in extremely rich soil, you may want to give them more support to keep them upright. As for fertilizing, you can put a top dressing of well-rotted manure or compost on top of the soil to help keep it blooming well and prevent it from becoming overly leggy as it grows. It’s also a good idea to mulch around your plants to help them retain moisture as the hotter weather comes along.
Columbine: End of Season Care
At the end of the season, there are a few things you can do with your flowers to keep them happy, get them ready to go dormant, and ensure they have everything they need to come back strong next spring.
Pruning and Trimming:
Once your plant blooms, the foliage can turn brown and look ratty. The leaf miner will disfigure the leaves a lot of the time with intricate, white tunnels. Cutting the foliage of your plants off at the base and tossing it will encourage new foliage to emerge. If you live in a much hotter climate or you put your columbine plant in a location with full sun, it could go dormant for the rest of the season until the cooler temperatures hit in the fall and winter months.
Dividing and Transplanting:
If you plan on dividing this plant, do so very carefully. This plant has very deep roots that won’t react well to transplanting. You should try to dig down as deeply as you possibly can and circle around the clump of roots before lifting the entire root ball about without breaking the soil bay. Lay this whole thing on the ground and divide it with a sharp spade. Try to keep a decent amount of soil around the roots, and replant your divisions very gently while keeping them well watered.
Design Advice and Companion Planting
One favorite springtime combination with this plant is a yellow columbine variety paired with tiny blue flowers from the annual or perennial forget-me-not. The fairly low-growing and softly-lobed foliage columbine has made it a nice choice to plant near woodland gardens. It also works in sunnier spots that get a small amount of afternoon shade. If you choose to plant en masse, the foliage can act like a brilliant foil for early spring bulbs like tulips because it’ll hide the tulipe foliage as it goes yellow.
It’s a great nectar source for hummingbirds if you want to plant it in a butterfly garden, and it’ll give these tiny birds one of the earliest snacks possible in North American gardens. The nectaries on the columbine flowers are located right on the ends of the spurs that make this plant instantly recognizable. The tubes make it easy for any insect or pollinator with long proboscises like the hawk moth to reach.
Having a consistent moisture level during the germination and seedling stages of this plant. Once you establish these plants, you can cut back your watering to once a week if it doesn’t rain. If it does rain, you want to hold back on the watering for the next week to stop from saturating the soil.
Plants will self-sow, even if they are short-lived. Note that hybrids produce seedlings that will be different from the parent plant, so if you don’t want different varieties growing next to your prized ones, you want to weed them out. Pot up any seedlings you don’t want and give them to friends, family, neighbors, or anyone who wants them. You can also transplant them a decent distance from the parent plant or put them in your compost pile.
Weed your area regularly to ensure that there is minimal water competition. This is also a great way to discourage insects from infesting the plants. Deadhead blooms throughout the growing season to encourage new blooms.
Best Uses for Columbine
Columbine is popular in cottage-style gardening because it does well amongst short and tall plants, and it has more sparse foliage. This plant will benefit from any shade cast by taller companions or shrubbery, and it creates a very wispy, delicate foreground display for you.
If you have small gardening spaces or containers, it’ll do very well here too because it’s a very well-behaved cultivar. A few good companion plants for columbine are foxglove, daylily, allium, iris, peony, heuchera, poppy, and phlox. Introducing this plant to your landscape is a good way to attract pollinators like hummingbirds, butterflies, and bumblebees.
Is Columbine Toxic?
Did you know that you can eat Aquilegia vulgaris and a few other species of this plant if you prepare it correctly? Some also have a history of use for medicinal purposes. However, it’s a toxic plant that you shouldn’t ingest. It has a minor toxicity classification that is associated with causing mild gastrointestinal issues like vomiting and diarrhea. Horses that eat this plant can experience behavioral changes, respiratory distress, coma, or even death.
Wit & Wisdom
- The Latin name for Columbine is Aquilegia. This name is derived from the Latin word aquila, meaning eagle. The long spurs that come out behind the flower look like an eagle’s claws.
- The crushed seeds and roots were historically used to treat heart problems, headaches, and sore throats.
- Native Americans once used the crushed seeds for medicinal purposes or as a love charm.
Now that you know the main elements of Columbine care, it’s time to start planting. Whether you choose to start from a seed or replant a potted columbine, these flowers are sure to bring in the spot of brightness and color your garden needs.