Columbines are very hardy perennials, and they thrive throughout the United States. Their nodding flowers vary in size from one to three inches across, and blossoms rang in color from delicate pastels to deep, vibrant colors such as purple, yellow, orange, and red. The contrasting sepals and petals of the columbine lend a pixie-like look to them as they sit atop erect, wiry stems. The foliage is lacy, and attractive even when the flowers are not in bloom.
Most columbine flowers have backward-projecting spurs that contain rich nectar that can only be reached by hummingbirds. Some have large flowers with longer spurs, while others have smaller double flowers with short spurs, or no spurs at all.
The Rocky Mountain columbine (A. caerulea) grows from one to three feet in height. Its delicate, erect pastel blue and white flowers are about two inches across and very fragrant. The spurs of this species are approximately two inches long, and are either straight or spreading. The foliage resembles that of a maidenhair fern.
Another striking variety is the European Columbine (A. vulgaris), which reaches one to two and a half feet in height, and sports smaller flowers of blue, purple, or white. The spurs of this columbine are short or nonexistent. These flowers look very much like small Dahlias, and they make a great cut flower. Nora Barlow, is pink with white margins, and Tower Light Blue is a fluffy blue flower with white edges.
Dwarf vs. Tall
Columbines fall into two basic size groupings: tall and dwarf. Taller types can grow to three feet, and flowers are often two or three times the size of the smaller types. Mature specimens may spread their leaves over an area up to two feet wide, though some of this foliage can be cut back without harming the plants. They show up well from the back of a mixed border or the center of an island bed, but be sure to give them plenty of space.
The dwarf types usually remain under one foot in height and bear blossoms one to two inches in diameter. They are an excellent choice for rock gardens, where their dainty scale can be displayed to advantage. Space them about six inches apart.
The amount of sun your plants will need depends on your climate. In most gardens, columbines grow well in partial shade. In a northern climate, half a day of sun is ideal. In warmer climates columbines need correspondingly less sun. In very warm climates such as southern California and Texas, dappled shade is preferred. In most areas, peak bloom times is mid-spring to early summer.
For healthy plants that will last for years in the garden, you’ll need good drainage, but plenty of moisture in the soil. Choose your location carefully because columbines don’t like to be moved, and they don’t grow well in containers because of their long tap root.
Care & Maintenance
Columbines are nearly pest free, although their foliage is sometimes plagued by leaf miners. These insects usually only cause cosmetic damage, however, and don’t shorten the life of the plant nor curtail bloom production. In some areas, powdery mildew occurs in spring. Spider mites are sometimes a problem in warm climates.
As with most flowers, you can prolong the bloom season by pinching off faded flowers, but toward the end of the bloom season, leave plenty of flowers to form seedheads. The seedheads are attractive, and will add a point of interest to the winter garden. Columbines don’t need any special winter protection or care, but it’s always a good idea to remove yellowing leaves to prevent insects from overwintering in your garden. Most gardeners remove all the foliage in the fall, or as early as July or August in very hot climates.
One thing columbines insist on is adequate water. They like a soil that is always a little moist, and during dry spells you’ll have to water your columbines regularly. Adding organic material to the soil and using a few inches mulch of will help the soil retain moisture.
Most columbines tend to self-sow. The taller types tend to self-sow more readily than the dwarf types, and as with most plants, hybrids may not produce seedlings true to the parent types. If you enjoy the cycle of self-seeding, my suggestion is to let them try the first year. If you don’t like the results, it’s easy enough to remove the seedlings in future years. On the downside, allowing plants to go to seed may shorten their life span.
Starting columbine from seeds takes a little work, but like all the best things in life, it’s worth the trouble. In order to germinate, columbine seeds require stratification, which is a process of subjecting the seeds to a moist/cold treatment to bring them out of dormancy. The easiest way to do this is to plant the seeds in the fall or in early spring when the nights are still cold, letting nature take care of the process for you. If you have your heart set planting your columbines in the spring, place the seeds in a tray of moist soil, and place the tray in the refrigerator or freezer for about 3 weeks. Columbine seeds need light to germinate, so whether you start them indoors or out, press them lightly into the top of the soil. Seeds can take up to 25 days to germinate.