Envision a woodland garden, and nodding columbine are one of the first plants that comes to mind. With their intricate shapes and rainbow of colors, columbines are deservedly popular perennials.
The original North American columbine species (Aquilegia viridiflora) crossed the Bering Strait from Eurasia, migrating across the land bridge that once connected the two continents. From there, the plants expanded into new territory, evolving into new species as they moved southward. Now there are columbines adapted to every habitat from cool, high mountain meadows to burning deserts. This diversity is a boon for flower lovers; no matter where you live, there’s a columbine for your garden.
The only species native to the eastern part of the United States is A. canadensis, a red-flowered beauty found throughout the range of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. (The nectar of all red columbine species is extra sweet, to attract these avian pollinators.) A. formosa is another reddish columbine, found in the Pacific Northwest from Alaska southward to Nevada and Utah, while the similar-looking A. desertorum (left)handles the extreme temperatures and sparse rainfall of the southwestern deserts.
Columbines come in other colors, too. A. chrysantha, known as Yellow or Golden Columbine, is a tough, drought-tolerant perennial well suited for western gardens. Clouds of bright yellow flowers, glowing in the sun, seem to float above billows of lacy foliage. ‘Denver Gold’ is a particularly impressive cultivar native to the Colorado Rockies, with flowers up to three inches across and an all-summer bloom season.
And speaking of Colorado, let’s not forget the Colorado state flower—the Colorado Columbine. A. caerulea, also known as the Blue Columbine, blooms in blue and white with flowers that blanket sunny mountain meadows and shaded forest glades from Idaho to New Mexico. It’s against the law to pick them on public lands, but happily they adapt well to garden conditions so you can grow your own at home.
As if this abundance of options was not enough, plant breeders have developed hybrids that expand the palette even further. Named cultivars, such as those in the State or Songbird series, come in every color of the rainbow, either all one hue or bicolored. ‘Magpie’ has blossoms of white and a purple so deep, it appears black. Other cultivars, such as Barlow Blue, are crammed with extra petals. ‘Hoop Petticoats’ has petals fused into a daffodil-like trumpet, and no spurs at all.
Because A. vulgaris, the common European species, is part of their heritage, most hybrids are a bit more particular about their growing conditions when compared to our native species. Offer them full sun to part shade, amended soil, and regular watering, and you’ll be amply rewarded with flowers all season long. Our various native species have diverse requirements according to their place of origin.
All columbines are relatively short-lived perennials, but they make up for that lack by leaving behind an abundance of seeds. Given appropriate conditions, they’ll make themselves at home in your yard for years to come.