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Elegant and Easy Columbines
by Janet Davis
by Janet Davis


Janet Davis is a freelance garden writer and horticultural photographer whose stories and images have been featured in numerous publications. Magazines featuring her work include Canadian Gardening, Canadian Living, Gardening Life, President’s Choice Magazine, Chatelaine Gardens and, in the United States, Fine Gardening and Country Living Gardener.


June 25, 2006

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If my garden was a moving picture, I know exactly where I’d freeze the frame: on that perfect morning in June when sunshine lights the shade-dappled corners where columbines grow amidst the ferns.
There’s a parade of columbines in the garden, starting with native Eastern columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. With its delicate red spurs surrounding yellow petals, it fits perfectly in a late-spring border of brilliant primary colors offset by fresh spring green – red, yellow and orange tulips mixed with nodding Virginia bluebells and wild blue phlox. (It attracts hummingbirds too!)
The old-fashioned pink and blue “granny’s bonnets”, or Aquiliegia vulgaris are tall, elegant and exceptionally easy to grow. They look beautiful with any of the early perennial geraniums, including ‘Johnson’s Blue’.
Rocky Mountain columbine, A. caerulea, has sumptuous blue-and-white flowers and is a little more compact than others, topping out at about 16 inches.
The double-flowered European hybrid, “Nora Barlow,” is about 20 inches tall. Her spurless blossoms are an engaging combination of pink and greenish white that make wonderful cut flowers, and unlike many columbine hybrids whose seed produces inferior offspring, her seed “comes true.”
Golden columbine, A. chrysantha, is another tall one, but in a clear daffodil yellow and quite fragrant. This one is very attractive when paired with blue Jacob’s ladder or blue camassia.
Later still, around delphinium time, come the ‘McKana Giants’ and other long-spurred hybrids -- tall plants that grow to 36 inches and bear lovely upfacing flowers, sometimes bi-coloured, with extremely long spurs. The seed they produce is inferior, so new plants should be started from named seed. The long-spurred hybrids hold their own in the early summer perennial border although the mixes tend to make designing by colour tricky, and might actually look best in the sedate company of ferns and hostas.
Grow your columbines in moist, rich, well-drained soil in sun or light shade. They are amazingly easy to start from seed, and all the species will self-seed.
Foliage, alas, is columbine’s only defect. As summer warms, columbines are often attacked by leaf miners, tiny larvae of a small fly that tunnel through the foliage, leaving behind a telltale yellow roadmap. But these little critters do no long-term harm. If seriously infested plants are cut back to the ground, fresh new foliage will soon emerge. And the odd creepy-crawler is a small price to pay for such an engaging plant.

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