Columbine – Aquilegia

Wild beauty for the garden. Columbine is one of the most beautiful of our native flowers. Although it is now rare to find this plant in the wild, gardeners have grown it for centimes and it remains a firm favourite in many types of garden.

ANNUAL CALENDAR

SPRING, SUMMER, AUTUMN, WINTER

April:, fallen. Leave a few, immediately

Sow seeds under, to set seed if, glass or in rows, required. Sow, outside freshly harvested,

May:, seed outside

Plant out seedlings

Flowering begins

Divide mature plants that have formed clumps. However, sowing from seed produces the most vigorous plants. In spring, sow seeds in a seed-tray or box in a cold frame or greenhouse. You can also sow them outside in rows.

POPULAR VARIETIES

The columbine varies in colour from blue-purple to pink, red and white.

These colours also occur in the double forms of ‘granny’s bonnet’ {Aquilegia vulgaris flore-pleno). There is a form known as A. clematiflora which can also be double, and cultivars include the popular ‘Nora Barlow’, which has pompons of green, white and pink.

The group A. vulgaris vervaeneana has leaves marbled with yellow or cream. A. atrata resembles A. vulgaris, but has chocolate to deep-purple blooms. It needs a sunny site for its flowers to thrive.

The alpine columbine, A. alpina, reaches 30-40cm in height. The spurred flowers are blue, or blue and white. ‘Hensol Harebell’ is a hybrid between A. vulgaris and A. alpina with large, soft blue flowers.

A group of Aquilegia species has long, flared spurs to the flowers. There are several multicoloured strains or cultivars. ‘Mrs Scott Elliott’s Variety’ is up to 90cm tall with large flowers in many pastel colours. ‘McKana’ hybrids bear huge flowers on 75-90cm-tall stems. ‘Dragonfly’ hybrids and the Fl ‘Music Harmony’ mixed varieties are both about 45cm high in many colours. Also try the striking yellow-and-red A. canadensis or the charming yellow A. cluysantha.

Uses in the garden

Columbine looks stunning planted in groups or drifts among shrubs or beneath high trees. It also makes an impact in a bed by itself, especially against a dark hedge such as yew. It may be planted in a mixed bed, but this masks its character and also hides the foliage.

How to propagate

During mild spells from late autumn to late winter, you can propagate the columbine.

HARVESTING SEEDS

If you want more plants, allow some flowers to set seed pods. As soon as the pods split at the tips and you can see the black seeds, remove them from the plant and dry in the sun for 1 or 2 days. Shake out the seeds and store them in a paper bag somewhere cool and dry.

U nlike many other hardy perennials, columbine has foliage that is almost as attractive as its flowers. Each leaf is made up of lobed leaflets tinted blue-grey.

The unique character of the columbine’s flowers lies in the sepals. These protect the petals and vital organs of the flower and in most plants they are green. The columbine has sepals coloured like petals, with a hook-tipped, tube-shaped spur which secretes nectar.

Many species

There are about 70 species of columbine, varying in colour. They also differ greatly in height, with dwarf species suitable for the rock-garden.

Columbine

SITUATION

Ideally in sun for half of the day or in dappled shade, but it will grow in full sun if the soil is moist enough.

SOIL

Moist, but reasonably well-drained and fertile. Improve poor soils by adding decayed manure, compost or leaf-mould as well as a general fertilizer.

CARE

Unless seed is required, remove flowering stems once the last flower has faded and clear away all dead growth in late autumn. Support taller types with sticks in very exposed sites.

PLANT HEALTH

Columbines are rarely damaged by pests or diseases but aphids (greenfly) can attack in a mild spring.

Spray with water or a suitable insecticide as soon as this pest appears on shoots or flower buds.

BUYING

Do not buy plants until the first flowers have opened. You can then judge their height, colour and health.

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