Granny's bonnet, doves-round-a-dish, meetinghouses - all these fanciful names refer to a pretty little perennial we usually call columbine (Aquilegia spp.). Beloved for its charming flowers and delicate foliage, the columbine has long been a mainstay of the English cottage garden.
There is much lore associated with this charming plant. While many authorities claim that Aquilegia comes from the Latin aquila 'eagle', based on a comparison of the flower's spur to an eagle's talon, it is more likely to come from aquilegus 'drawing water' or 'water container', since the spur collects the sweet nectar beloved by bees and hummingbirds. The common name columbine has long been associated with the Latin columba 'dove', as some people thought the flowers resembled five doves in a circle. Columbines appear in many medieval paintings, where they are said to represent the dove of peace, symbol of the Holy Spirit.
But columbine has more profane associations as well: like many flowers bearing spurs it was regarded as a symbol of cuckoldry. Others believed that columbine blossoms resembled a jester's cap, and it was the Victorian floral symbol of folly. This leads to the alternative theory that the plant is named for Columbina, the mistress of Harlequin and a stock female character in Italian and French farce.
In late spring and early summer, columbines bear nodding or upfacing flowers that are composed of five cupped petals, which narrow into spurs that protrude behind the bloom, and five petal-like sepals. Bicoloured columbines have petals and sepals of different colours. The flowers rise above attractive lobed foliage, each leaf usually composed of three leaflets.
There are many species native to North America. One of the most readily available is Aquilegia canadensis, the Canadian columbine, a woodland species with scarlet and yellow flowers. It is among the first columbines of the year to bloom.
Many columbines are native to high mountain slopes. Aquilegia flavescens, the yellow columbine, has nodding lemon yellow flowers and is native to southern British Columbia and Alberta, while the blue-and-white-flowered Aquilegia caerulea ranges further south from Montana to New Mexico. Golden columbine, Aquilegia chrysantha, is more heat and drought tolerant than other species.
Alpine plant collectors delight in Aquilegia jonesii, the limestone columbine, an exquisite little plant with deep blue violet flowers found in the mountains from southern Alberta to Wyoming. Aquilegia flabellata, the fan columbine, is also recommended for alpine gardens, particularly the petite cultivar 'Mini Star'.
In addition to the species, there are many delightful columbine hybrids. Perhaps best known are the 'McKana's Giants' which bear large long-spurred flowers in pastel shades. 'Nora Barlow' is an unusual double columbine with narrow petals tinted with pink, green, and white.
Planting and Growing Tips
Most columbines prefer part sun or light shade; however, they will grow in full sun if the soil is kept evenly moist. Plant them in well drained soil amended with generous amounts of organic matter, such as compost or aged manure. Spread a layer of organic mulch around the plants to assist in retaining moisture, unless you wish the plants to self-seed.
Although not long-lived perennials, columbines are easy to start from seed. They readily cross-pollinate and if you have several species in your garden be prepared for some interesting hybrid seedlings. Unlike mature columbines, which develop a tough, deep taproot, young plants are easy to transplant,
Watch for telltale signs of leaf miners, whose larvae create white tracks in columbine leaves. Remove affected leaves immediately, disposing of them in the garbage, not the compost. Tidy columbines by cutting back spent flowering stems and any foliage that yellows in the heat of the summer. Fresh green foliage usually appears when temperatures become cooler in the fall.
Columbines are right at home in the dappled or light shade of a woodland garden, where they are fine companions to spring blooming primulas, ferns, and hostas. They are also an excellent choice for a mixed border with other old-fashioned annuals or perennials such as irises, hardy geraniums, and campanula.
Small alpine species are suitable for a partly shaded rockery. Combine them with saxifrages, dianthus, perennial candytuft, and alpine poppies (Papaver alpinum).
Lesley Reynolds is a freelance Calgary gardening writer who is a co-author of the best-selling Calgary gardening books - The Calgary Gardener, Volumes I and II. A third book, 101 Best Plants for the Prairies, which is co-authored with Liesbeth Leatherbarrow, is due for publication this fall. 101 Best Plants for the Prairies focuses on perennials, annuals, bulbs, shrubs, and trees that thrive in the temperate prairie regions of North America. Along with descriptions of featured plants, each entry includes growing and landscaping tips, and a collectors' choice section that highlights additional plants of interest.