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Columbines – How to Grow Eastern Red Columbine, Aquilegia Canadensis

Almost like a beautiful, petite, lantern. Columbine, Aquilegia Canadensis
Aquilegia Canadensis, Eastern Red Columbine in Bloom

Simple steps for how to grow and care for Columbine

Columbine, or any variety of Aquilegia are beautiful perennials that will self-seed in good growing requirements.  They are hardy plants that are native to the United States.  Although this article primarily focuses on Eastern Red Columbine (since that is my favorite), the conditions required for Columbine to thrive and be happy are the same for all the different varieties available.  But in a nutshell, to sucessfully grow Columbine:

  • Columbines are generally hardy in zones 3-8.  Fine your garden zone here.
  • Columbines prefer partial shade, and will thrive in this.  But they can grow in full shade.  I’ve also grown them in full sun but they will require regular watering
  • Will typically grow to about 2′ (70 cm) tall, but can reach 3′ (1m), and about 1-1.5′ spread (30-60 cm)
  • Prefer well drained soil
  • In the wild, or in a meadow, they don’t handle competition well and can be crowded out
  • Columbines will bloom for about a month, up to 6 weeks in late spring to early summer
  • Columbines are loved by hummingbirds (particularly the red variety) and bees

Eastern Red Columbine Facts and General Description

Columbine is a great spring garden plant, and one of our native perennials.  Also known as Canada Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, the numerous blooms are attractive and interesting to look upon.  Hummingbirds love the nectar, and I’ve found that they are generally drawn to the color red.  And since it is an early bloomer, having Columbine in your garden can encourage hummingbirds to build their nests nearby.  The lobed leaves are attractive all summer long with different shades of green, blue, and purple.  This is a great way to get some early red color into your garden, and is particularly nice for shady areas or rain gardens.  I’ve grown columbine in both full sun and shade without issue.  So, I’ve found them to be adaptable to a large number of environments.  Columbine is one of the three flowers described in our Early Spring Wildflowers article, which can provide your garden color from March-June (depending on your zone).

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The blooms of columbines look like some form of Chinese lantern or lampshade to me.  It is quite beautiful to see them dangling upside down in a gentle breeze.  Watching a hummingbird go from bloom to bloom, hovering underneath to reach the nectar is fun to watch, and the more you have the more hummingbirds you should see.

There are many types of Columbines

Since I live in the Mid-Atlantic I primarily focus on Aquilegia Canadensis, or Eastern Red Columbine.  This is the native variety where I live, and it has evolved to thrive out here.  But there are many beautiful varieties that are native throughout the USA.  A few that come to mind are the blue/purple varieties of Auilegia Aplina or Olympica, and the yellow variety Aquilegia chrysantha.  Your local garden center likely has several in stock throughout the Spring/Summer, and there many different seed varieties available.

Columbine Bloom
Eastern Red Columbine, Auilegia Canadensis

How long do Columbines live?

Columbines are classified as a perennial, meaning they should come back year after year.  Some varieties act more like biennials, meaning that they grow the first year, bloom the second, and then die.  So, it is always a good idea to leave some of the seedlings.  But I’ve had mine live for at least 3 years, and if they come back for a fourth I will be sure to update this article.  There is plenty of variation in nature, so it probably depends on the species more than anything.


Eastern Red Columbine Aquilegia canadensis, whole plant and leavesColumbine Growing Requirements

 I’ve found this plant to be fairly tough, growing in a variety of soil.  They seem to be drought tolerant, but it helps if they at least have partial shade.  If they are planted close together, and there isn’t much airflow between plants you can get powdery mildew – but this generally doesn’t harm the plant.  The leaves just don’t look as nice.

You should plant these in well drained soil.  I’ve never really found a need to fertilize them, as they always seem to produce plenty of blooms.

I have found that the main threat to these plants is competition from other plants.  In nature, they tend to grow in areas where not many plants can grow.  I’ve seen them in the wild clinging to a rock on a cliff, where you wouldn’t think any plant could grow.  If you put them in a flower bed, with possibly aggressive plants nearby, they may get overcrowded.

So, you can grow them in a wide variety of places, but one of the least maintenance locations for these plants is at the base of trees, or anywhere that gets shade in the afternoon.  I’ve grown them in full sun many times, but know that you will likely need to water these periodically.  Just inspect the leaves, and if they look thirsty, water them,.

Growing Columbine from seed

Columbine need to have cold/moist stratification before germinating.  The seed requires sunlight to break the dormancy, so I usually just plant them on the surface of the soil, pressing them in.  I’ve found the easiest way to germinate them is to winter sow them.  You just plant them in small pots as you would with any other seed.  But, you do this in the winter and set them outside to finish wintering, but keep them covered with some translucent cover.

columbine seedlings aquilegia canadensis
Columbine Seedlings, ready for transplanting into the garden

I use a regular starter six-pack, along with other seeds that need cold stratification.  Then, keep them moist, but cover them with a clear plastic cover/dome.  I secure this with twine and duct tape, and set it outside.  After this, the only risk you have is if you get some exceptionally warm days in the early spring.  Since the plastic cover will act like a green house, you need to make sure it doesn’t get too hot.  If the temperature is forecasted to get ~60 F (16 C), then you should consider moving it to the shade.  If it is in full sun in this or greater temperatures, you might cook the seeds and kill them.

Germinating them in the Summertime – cold stratification

If you decide you want to grow them in the summer, and can’t winter sow, it is possible but much more difficult.  What you need to do is take a paper towel and moisten it with water (just use a spray bottle).  You want it damp, but not wet – what I mean is if you squeeze it, you shouldn’t have a lot of drops of water fall out.  Fold your paper towel twice so it is 1/4 the normal size, and place your seeds in the center so they are in the middle in all directions.  Place this into a ziplock bag, and store in the refrigerator for 1-2 months.

What I would do is try to plant 1/2 the seeds at one month, and see if they germinate within 3 weeks.  If these fail to germinate, pull the other seeds out of the refrigerator after two months of stratification, and attempt to germinate.  Just make sure they are pressed onto the surface of the soil, are always moist, and that they receive direct sunlight.

Columbine Flower Bloom
Columbine blooms are truly a work of art by themselves

Again, winter sowing is far easier with this plant.  The main reason it is easier is that the seeds aren’t as likely to dry out.  The soil just tends to dry out in the hot summer more easily, which makes germination difficult.

From germination to transplant….

One of the most unique flowers in America. Columbine, Aquilegia Canadensis
Underneath bloom of Columbine, Aquilegia Canadensis,

Once the seeds germinate, after they get their first true leaves (after the two that are present at germination), I transplant the whole cell to a larger pot.  And then just grow them until they are large enough for transplant to the garden.

Alternatively, if you collect seeds from mature plants in the summer (~July) you can just sprinkle them in a clear area.  I’ve found they will germinate if they are fresh seeds from blooms.  In fact, this plant will make many, many new plants through self-seeding.  So, if there is not much competition it can fill in an area quite nicely.

How long will it take for a Columbine bloom if growing from seed?

You can expect a Columbine grown from seed to bloom the following season.  I’ve not seen any bloom their first year, as they generally seem to just focus on getting a good root system and establishing themselves.  The first year you can expect to have a small, compact plant of deep-lobed leaves.

Columbine Seedling
This Columbine Seedling was free from my other plants! These do go to seed quite well.

Should you deadhead Columbine flowers?

Deadheading Columbine flowers will prolong the blooming period.  I generally don’t bother, as I am a pretty busy guy.  However, anything you can do to encourage more blooms should keep that area of your flower bed prettier for a longer period of time.  Logically it should also bring more hummingbirds to your home to visit.

columbine leaf
The smooth, deep-lobe leaves of Auilegia are unmistakable!

Fall/Winter maintenance

Since this plant is herbaceous, meaning that it doesn’t have a woody stem or any foliage that stays over winter, you can remove dead foliage after the plant has gone dormant.  If you grow Columbines in a well kept flower bed, and wish to keep it tidy then you can remove the foliage after the plant has turned brown after you’ve had freezing temperatures.  Alternatively, you don’t have to do anything.  The following Spring this plant will send up new shoots/leaves weather or not you clear away the dead leaves from the previous season.  So, it is just kind of up to you and what kind of garden you have.

How to collect and save Columbine Seeds

Saving columbine seeds is incredibly easy!  After the blooms have finished, and the pods are dried up and crispy, the seed should be ready for harvest.  Just snip off the pods and place them in a brown paper bag.  Let them dry in a cool dark place for about a week, then just shake the bag up.  The seed will just fall right out of the pods.  1-2 plants should produce hundreds of seeds.  The seeds are very tiny, black, and very shiny.  I’ve always wondered why they looked so polished.  This video shows the overall process very well:

Alternatively, if you just want to get some more plants this year, you can scatter the seed where you want more Columbines to grow.  They self-seed vigorously.  Even if you do nothing, you are likely to get dozens of volunteer seedlings the same year the plants first bloom.  These can be transplanted to other areas or shared with friends when they are very small, or in the following early Spring when the plants begin emerging.

Threats from animals eating Columbines

The other risk to these plants are rabbits eating them.  Rabbits will eat the leaves and stems on young columbine plants.  I have found that if they are browsed by rabbits they can recover if the plants are large enough.  In my gardens, I spray them with liquid fence when they emerge every week for about a month.  This keeps the hungry animals away, allowing them to grow large enough to bloom nicely.  Also, they typically aren’t eaten by deer – but it can happen.  However, liquid fence has always worked for me, as long as I keep up with the applications.

columbine rabbit damage aquilegia
All the leaves on this columbine have been eaten by rabbits. Fortunately the blooms were left alone.

So, plant them where they can have their own area, It can be in full sun to shade, as long as the soil will drain.  Then, enjoy the early spring blooms from this flower, and keep an eye out for hummingbirds, as they are very likely to visit.  As another benefit, they will self-seed heavily, so you should have no shortage of plants in your garden.

Problems with Columbines

Like most plants, Columbines are susceptible to various fungi, pests and disease.

Leaf Miners – The most common issue I’ve seen is a leaf miner bug that leaves light colored squiggly lines in the leaves.  These lines just look strange, and I’ve never lost a plant because of an infestation.

Powdery Mildew – This is a fungus that occurs in damp conditions.  Since Columbines are often planted in shade, it can be more prevalent if it is a particularly wet year or there isn’t much airflow through the plant.  So if you have a thick stand of Columbine, it will be more likely to occur.

Other Fungus – There are several other fungi that can attack Columbine as well as other plants.  Common ones are grey mold on the leaves/stem, or black spots on the leaves.  Treatment of this should be the same as powdery mildew, ie ensure plenty of airflow, drainage in soil, and possibly a fungicide.

Typical Columbine Uses in Garden

As stated, Columbines are very adaptable to a wide variety of conditions.  They can be great for a shady area that doesn’t get much sun or a rain garden.  Due to their size, they can make a nice border on a shady side of your house.  I use them under trees, and out in the open in a more ‘general’ meadow.  However, if you plant them near other plants keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t get ‘crowded out’ as they don’t handle competition well.

Columbine Plant bloom patch
A large, healthy, 3-foot tall Columbine in my ‘wild patch’.

I’ve actually used these in full sun areas for years, and as long as the soil holds enough moisture they do fine.  I have several growing in out backyard micro-prairie.  See how to start your own micro-prairie here.  It will bring in more pollinating bees and butterflys than you would believe.  And you get to watch the birds pick out seeds from seed heads during Autumn/Winter.

A must for attracting hummingbirds

Growing Columbines will help to attract hummingbirds to your garden.  It is one of the earliest nectar sources for them, and can encourage them to build nests nearby.  If you really want to attract hummingbirds, grow multiple specimens.  It is a pretty simple principal – more food, more hummingbirds!Large Columbine Flower Patch

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Columbine Reference Table:

Common Name Eastern Red Columbine
Scientific name Aquilegia canadensis
USDA Garden Zone 3-8
Bloom Time April-June
Bloom Duration 4 weeks
Color Red
Bloom Size ‘1.5” / 3.5 cm
Characteristics Almost like a hanging lantern
Height 1-2’, 30-60 cm
Spacing/Spread 1-2’, 30-60 cm
Light Requirements Full Sun, Part Shade, Shade
Soil Types Primarily needs to be well drained.  I’ve found it to be very tolerant of poor soil.
Moisture Prefers moist, but well drained soil.
Maintenance Well self-seed vigorously
Typical Use Shade garden, rain garden
Fauna Associations Nectar preferred by hummingbirds.  Can be browsed by rabbits.
Larval Host Columbine Duskywing
Sowing Depth Surface
Stratification 30 days cold/moist
Native Range Eastern United States – typically grows where other plants can’t (rock outcroppings, etc)
Notes

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