A Titillating Tale of our Beloved Columbine…
Gather around my fellow gardeners, for I have a tale to tell. It’s a story of Kings and wild passion, of centuries gone by, a titillating tale that includes the birds and the bees. It’s the story of one of our most beloved cottage garden perennials – the columbine.
Allow me to whisk you back in time to the 17th century. If you were a gardener in Europe over 400 years ago you could have any color of columbine your heart desired – so long as the color was blue. Meanwhile, across the rollicking Atlantic seas deep in the wilds of North America the most common columbine was the Aquilegia Canadensis in the east and the almost identical, though more compact, Aquilegia Formosa in the west. Both produced red blooms with yellow centers. And so it was that the blue columbine was commonplace in Europe, while the gaudy red and yellow columbine was a yawner in North America.
Ah, but my dear readers, all that was about to change in ways that would soon set hearts aflutter. In the early 1600’s a kinsmen to the gardener of King Charles the First was living in the state of Virginia when he decided to gift his relative with some seeds from our native columbine. When these seeds from the New World gave birth to their red and yellow blooms they created a sensation in the King’s garden of near panic proportions. North America’s common wildflower was embraced by Europeans as a flower so exquisite, so extraordinary, as to be practically priceless.
Happily, the Europeans weren’t the only ones to fall madly in love with the brash red and yellow columbine. Their refined blue columbine took one look at this exotic red and yellow stranger and soon the two were breeding like bunnies. Today’s colorful columbines are all descendants of that ancient and earthy love affair.
Columbines easy embrace of each other makes raising them either fun or frustrating depending on your goals. They readily self seed but if you have more than one kind the offspring will no doubt carry traits of a combination of nearby columbines. Often the result will be an inferior disappointment, but other times it can be quite remarkable. Anyone who has ever dreamt of producing their own botanical species might enjoy starting with columbines to see what they can come up with. Who knows? Maybe one day there will be a columbine bearing your name!
I know what you’re thinking. When are we ever going to get to the part about the birds and the bees? Well, hold your trowels, for the moment is at hand! Botanists believe the reason columbines were such different colors on the different continents was in direct correlation to the local pollinators the flowers hoped to attract. Blue was beloved by Europe’s native bees, while in North America it was the native hummingbird the columbine sought to attract. That said, hummingbirds will happily feast on blue flowers and bees buzz in on blooms that are red, so who knows for sure.
What cannot be disputed is how today’s columbines are available in a dazzling array of colors ranging from almost burgundy to lemon yellow, as well as almost black and some that are snow-white. They come in solids as well as lots of two tones in all shades of blue, pink, red and yellow.
Most columbines range in heights from 20 – 70 cm (8 – 27 inches) and are hardy right down to Zone 2. They do well in a myriad of growing conditions from full sun to part shade and will put down roots in almost any type of soil. Bloom time is from spring to early summer.
North America’s original wild columbine that helped seed the whole shebang is still widely available through many ethical and sustainable sources today. Aquilegia Canadensis is the very same native that caused such a sensation in Europe 400 years ago. Best of all, these red and yellow columbines look just as beak smacking to hummingbirds today as they did all those centuries ago!
If you’re looking for an assortment of colors or impressive sized blooms then the McKana Giant Mix is a great choice. This tried and true standby is readily available through most catalogs and nurseries. Or maybe you already have a particular color palette in mind that you would enjoy playing mad scientist with. Pair a couple of favorites and see what these promiscuous plants produce for you!
Propagation: Columbines are easily started from seed and will happily self sow in the garden. To start seed indoors press the seeds firmly into the soil but do not cover since they require light to germinate. Be sure to keep the seeds moist, but not too saturated. Covering the seed tray with plastic wrap or a clear fitted lid is a great way to help keep the seeds from drying out while still letting in the light. Germination is bolstered by popping the seeds into a plastic bag with a few tablespoons of damp potting soil and then putting them in the fridge for a couple of weeks prior to seeding. This brief stratification period mimics winter’s natural effect on the seeds and makes them more likely to sprout. Most freshly hatched columbines won’t bloom until the following year, but some hybrids such as the Swan Series or the Origami Mix will bloom the same year provided you start them early indoors.
Buying one year old roots from your local nursery is also a great option for dependably coloured blooms produced the same year. If you want to reproduce more columbines from an established plant in your own garden or if you should fall in love with a particular columbine in someone else’s flower patch you can easily propagate columbines by division. Simply dig down and slice off a healthy chunk of the root in early spring or fall – with permission of course!
As beloved as columbines are by the birds and the bees and even by European royalty, deer usually steer clear of them like a kid flees from spinach – so if deer are a problem you now have one more reason to fall in love with columbines.
As if you needed one…
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