Columbines (Aquilegia) are low-maintenance perennials that are a must for any garden. They produce short-lived delicate flowers that remind me of dancing butterflies, bringing about an abundance of color that adds quite a bit of interest to garden borders, beds, and containers. The flowers come in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, so choosing one that complements your garden should not be difficult. Better yet, once established, they are easy to grow, because they are self-sowers, drought tolerant, and need very little maintenance.
Where Should You Plant Your Columbines?
Although their flowers last for only a short time, they have a moderate blooming season, usually from mid-spring to early summer. However, a few of mine here in Charleston, South Carolina, hung on past the end of August! Columbines grow best in USDA zones 3 to 10 and prefer sunny to partial shady areas (usually meaning about six hours of morning sun—not the hot baking sun of the day).
They're also perfect for rock gardens and woodland settings. I live in the city but have a courtyard in the back that is sunny in the early morning and shady in the afternoon—they love it there.
How to Care for Columbines
Here are some helpful tips for how to best care for your columbine plants:
- They will grow to about 2 feet tall and 36 inches wide, so plant them by themselves or in small groups. This also depends on the species you purchase, as they also have dwarf-size columbines that range from 6 to 12 inches tall. The flowers range from 1 to 1.5 inches wide (across), and they have spurs.
- They like well-drained, humus-rich soil.
- Columbines self-sow, so you will have more next year unless you deadhead.
- They last about three to four years. However, if you let them self-sow, you will have an endless supply. You might even end up with some different colors, because they also cross-pollinate.
- Leaf miners tend to be a problem. They create silvery lines (tunnels) under the surface of the leaf. If you see this, just cut away the infected area, and do NOT throw it back in the garden. (Just throw it away.)
- They are deer resistant.
- Hummingbirds and butterflies love columbines.
- Keep in mind that once their beautiful blooms begin to die back, they do tend to become quite unattractive. So be sure to pair them with other plants that provide color, either with flowers or foliage, to keep your garden looking its best.
A Quick Guide for Easy Care
|Location||Cultivation||Soil and Water|
Sunny to Partially Shady
Moist, but well-drained soil.
Sow seeds in early spring in around 65 degrees Fahrenheit weather.
Water well in hot summer.
Transplant them in early spring.
Maintain moisture and nutrients in soil.
Propagate by dividing the root in spring or early fall.
Once established, it can survive a drought.
No winter care—except young plants. Mulch in the first year.
Prefers humus-rich soil.
Columbine Seeds Can Be Poisonous
Before going out and purchasing enormous quantities of this beautiful plant, there is something important you should know. Namely, columbines are from the buttercup family, and the seeds they produce are poisonous! So if you have young children or pets, please be wary of where you place these flowers in your garden. If they are planted where children and pets can reach them, try to address the concern by deadheading the plant so that the seed pods are not readily available for those little inquisitive hands to inspect.
Can columbines be used for medicinal purposes?
You may also hear that the seeds have a medicinal value for the treatment of liver and gallbladder problems. This was once true. However, it was realized over time that eating, cooking, or developing medicines with the seeds proved to be lethal. Today, it is believed that small doses of the seed extract can be used for medicinal values, but please leave this up to the pharmaceutical companies and other experts. Home gardeners should not delve into home remedies using these seeds, as it might lead to fatal consequences.
What Should You Plant Alongside Columbines?
Here are a few plants that make excellent complements to columbines:
- Phlox: Plant them along the border of columbines.
- Coleus: They look fantastic in front of columbines, as long as you keep the coleus pinched. (Don’t let it get lanky.)
- Toad Lily: An excellent choice because just as columbine starts to die down, toad lily starts to show off its blooms for the fall.
- Coreopsis: The bright yellow flowers make for an interesting contrast.
- Foamflower: They look amazing in front of columbines once the latter dies down. Foamflowers have a nice contrast to columbines' foliage.
- Ferns: Plant them as a nice backdrop to further accentuate the columbines.
These are just a few suggestions—you can pair almost anything with columbines. Just bear in mind the different light, soil, and water requirements for each plant, and try to pair each selection with a companion that requires similar care and conditions.
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