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Columbine Varieties: Selecting Columbines For The Garden

Columbine Varieties: Selecting Columbines For The Garden


By: Stan V. Griep, American Rose Society Consulting Master Rosarian, Rocky Mountain District

By Stan V. Griep
American Rose Society Consulting Master Rosarian – Rocky Mountain District

Columbines (Aquilegia) are beautiful flowering perennial plants for any garden or landscape. My home state of Colorado is also known as the Columbine State, as many columbine varieties grow well here. The traditional columbines that can be seen in the mountains here, as well as in several home gardens or landscaped settings, are typically pretty, white centered blooms with purple or blue-black petals or bonnets. There are many varieties available these days though. The color mixes and shapes of bloom seem nearly endless.

About Columbine Flowers

Columbines may be started in your garden from seed or by planting live plants in various areas. There are dwarf varieties available to fit in tighter spaces, as the regular big columbines need space to bush out. Most of my plants get to be about 30 inches (76 cm.) in diameter by about 24 inches (61 cm.) in height, not counting flower or bloom stems, which can reach up to 36 inches (91.5 cm.), sometimes taller.

You may want to check out the various seed mixes available that give you many different colors and bloom forms of these beautiful flowers. A fenceline bordered by these mixed beauties is sure to be the delight of the neighborhood!

Types of Columbines Flowers to Grow

Along with the traditional columbines here, we have some hybrids as well. One is Aquilegia x hybrida Pink Bonnets. Their blooms remind me of the tablecloths that can be seen upon the round tables at some lavish event. The bloom’s petals hang downward in what is called a nodding manner. We have some that are completely white when they bloom too, which carries a real sense of elegance about the blooms.

I recently discovered a variety named Aquilegia “Pom Poms.” These have blooms like those on my Pink Bonnets variety except they are very full. The extra full blooms take their elegance to an entirely different level. The plants seem to need little care to do well, in my experience the less care the better for top notch performance.

Here are a few beautiful varieties to consider; however, keep in mind there are many more that can be checked out to fit your garden or landscaping needs (some of the names alone make me want them for my gardens.):

  • Rocky Mountain Blue or Colorado Blue Columbine (These are the ones that are the Colorado State Flower.)
  • Aquilegia x hybrida Pink Bonnets (A favorite of mine.)
  • Aquilegia “Pom Poms”
  • Swan Burgundy and White Columbine
  • Lime Sorbet Columbine
  • Origami Red & White Columbine
  • Songbird Columbine mix of seeds (Available at Burpee Seeds)
  • Aquilegia x hybrida seeds: McKana Giants Mixed
  • Aquilegia x cultorum seeds: Danish Dwarf
  • Aquilegia Dorothy Rose
  • Aquilegia Dragonfly Hybrids
  • Aquilegia William Guinness
  • Aquilegia flabellata – Rosea
  • Aquilegia Blue Butterflies

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Columbines: Plant Care and Collection of Varieties

About columbines
Columbine (also known as Granny's bonnet) is known for its distinctive, bell-shaped, spurred flowers, which bloom from mid-spring to early summer. Though individual plants are short-lived, lasting only two to three years, columbine self-seeds prolifically and will persist in the garden with volunteer seedlings. With a wide choice of hybrid varieties, colors range from light pastels to bright yellow, red, orange and purple selections. The plant foliage is has an attractive lacey appearance.

Special features of columbines
Aquilegia 'Snow Queen' is well known for its striking , pure white spurred flowers.


Aquilegia vulgaris 'Adelaide Addison' displays bi-color white and blue flowers in the early summer.


Aquilegia vulgaris 'Nora Barlow' has attractive double spurless flowers in red, pink and pale green.

Choosing a site to grow columbines
Columbines grows best in full sun and well-drained, fertile soil but in warmer climates, morning sun and afternoon shade is preferred.

Planting Instructions
Plant in spring, spacing plants 1 to 3 feet apart, depending on the variety. Prepare the garden bed by using a garden fork or tiller to loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 15 inches, then mix in a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost. Dig a hole twice the diameter of the pot the plant is in. Carefully remove the plant from its container and place it in the hole so the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface. Carefully fill in around the root ball and firm the soil gently. Water thoroughly.

Ongoing Care
Columbine is prone to a fungal disease called powdery mildew. The spores spread through splashing water and travel on wind currents to infect other plants. Once established, powdery mildew is difficult to control. Most fungal diseases develop during rainy, wet weather, but powdery mildew develops when daytime temperatures are warm and nights are cool. The disease is not dependent on water on the leaves. You can help your columbines resist the disease by cutting back the affected plant parts (down to ground level if necessary), providing afternoon sunshine, and lots of air circulation in and around the plants.


One of the most common pest on columbine is leaf miner. These fly larvae feed inside the leaf. You'll see their damage as light-colored, winding tunnels on the leaf surfaces. Cut off and destroy all infested foliage after plants have bloomed the new leaves that regrow later in the season will be miner-free.


Columbine Species for Woodlands and Borders

Last winter I wrote about dwarf columbines which could be used in the rock garden or front of the border. This article is a companion, discussing the taller species more suitable for woodland gardens, wildflower gardens and perennial borders. Many of these are the ancestors to today's modern hybrid columbines. Hopefully this article will stimulate you to grow some of the 'wild' columbines.

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 21, 2008. our comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

Last winter I wrote an article on "The Best of the Dwarf Columbines.". In that article is described those species that are generally under 30 cm, ideal subjects for alpine gardens and troughs or the front of the border. This companion article will cover the taller species, more suitable for the perennial border, wildflower or shade gardens. I should also note that there are plenty of taller columbine hybrids but that could be the topic of a future article!

There are about 65 species of columbines (Aquilegia) in the world, all native to temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. Many of the taller species inhabit meadows or open woodlands, with some extending into the alpine zone. In the garden, they are carefree plants that simply require well-drained soil and regular watering during dry spells. They are all late spring-early summer bloomers. Many of the species about to be described are not available at local nurseries, but are often found among offerings of mail-order specialist nurseries or as seed from seed exchanges. However, a word of warning columbines are promiscuous and will hybridize with blooming neighbours so seeds from exchanges may end up being hybrids. If growing from seed, provide the sown seeds with a stratification period of 4-6 weeks to simulate a winter. All of these species are hardy to USDA zone 5 and several are hardy to zone 3.

Let's start with the most common and important species, at least from a gardeners perspective A. vulgaris or the common European columbine. This species is the ancestor in many of today's modern hybrids. It is a very prolific and promiscuous species, self-seeding with abandon and crossing with other nearby columbines. If allowed to mature, these seedlings can show a myriad of colours and forms. The original wild form has blue flowers, but even in the European countryside, you can find these columbines in white, purple, wine-red or pink, with single and double flowers, with or without spurs. Plants can be variable in height, mostly between 45-70 cm.

Various colour forms of Aquilegia vulgaris

Scattered throughout Europe and western Asia are a host of other columbine species that look for all intents, like A. vulgaris. In fact, some authorities claim they are simply forms of the common columbine, rather than distinct species. Aquilegia atrata hails from the Alps and Apennines. It is not unlike a very dark purple-violet to chocolate-wine coloured A. vulgaris. Similar in appearance is the Carpathian native A. nigricans, but this species has somewhat sticky foliage. Aquilegia olympica hails from the Caucasus region and again looks for all intents like a blue-flowered vulgaris-type except the petals and sepals are a little wider.

Aquilegia alpina is native to the Alps and is a charming columbine which varies in height from dwarf 15 cm to upwards of 60 cm. Alas most of the A. alpina in the trade are hybrids with A. vulgaris. The true A. alpina has dark blue flowers whose spurs are straight or slightly incurved, never strongly hooked (if so, this will indicate the A. vulgaris genes). The stamens are inserted (i.e. do not exceed beyond the petals).

There are a few other taller European species but they are rarely seen in North America. Aquilegia einseleana looks like a larger version of A. bertolonii (described in my earlier article on dwarf columbines) with deep blue, straight-spurred flowers. Aquilegia thalictrifolia has similar flowers but the foliage is very much like Thalictrum and is slightly sticky. Aquilegia grata is a native of the Balkan region with reddish-violet, straight-spurred flowers. Most distinct is A. aurea, the only European species with yellow flowers. Plants sit on the fence between being dwarf or taller as they range from 25-40 cm in height. Their flowers are much like a yellow-flowered A. vulgaris.

The next group of columbines are those that hail from the Himalayas east through China, Japan and Siberia. Aquilegia buergeriana is a Japanese species which reaches 50-80 cm. The flowers come in two colour forms primrose yellow or two-tone purple and yellow. The spurs are fairly straight and the stamens are inserted. The most popular selection is ‘Calimero', a lovely dwarf form described in my dwarf columbine article. Very similar, and once included with A. buergeriana, is A. oxysepala, a species that extends from Japan into eastern China and southeast Siberia. The flowers are two-toned purple and yellow but the spurs are strongly hooked.

The only tall, fragrant columbine is A. fragrans, a cream-coloured species from northern India. The spurs are relatively straight and the stamens are the same length as the petals. This species is not as hardy as most of the others, being rated for zone 6. Of similar colour is A. lactiflora, a rare species from central Asia whose spurs are mostly straight and stamens are exerted ( i.e. extend beyond the petals).

Looking like a dark purple-wine version of A. vulgaris are the central Asian species A. atrovinosa and A. kuhistanica, both with relatively short, strongly hooked spurs and inserted stamens. From the Altai region, northeast to Siberia, is A. siberica a blue, white or two-toned vulgaris-type easily distinguished by its leafless flower stems. Finally, from western China comes A. rockii, a very tall species with smallish, reddish-purple flowers whose spurs are very short and straight, with inserted stamens.

Some Asian species include A. kuhistanica, A. atrovinosa and A. rockii

The last group are the North American native columbines. Aquilegia canadensis was described in the dwarf columbine article but this species is quite variable and some forms may reach 60 cm or more. The red and yellow flowers are a common woodland sight in eastern North America. In the west is the similar species, A. formosa, whose petals are more flaring than those of A. canadensis. The small-flowered Aquilegia micrantha is another western species with similar-shaped flowers but comes in cream, yellow, pink or blue. All of these species have straight or outward-flaring spurs and exerted stamens.

Among the most delicate columbines are A. canadensis and A. formosa

The northernmost columbine in North America is A. brevistyla, which extends into Alaska. This two-toned blue and white flowered species is one of the few American columbines with hooked spurs, a feature more prominent in Eurasian species. It is thought that A. brevistyla probably migrated into North America from Siberia quite recently, as most of the tall columbines in America are yellow or red with straight spurs and exerted stamens, ideally adapted to hummingbird pollination. Aquilegia brevistyla, with its blue flowers and inserted stamens are bee pollinated. Another western species is A. flavescens, a yellow-flowered species with short, straight spurs and exerted stamens (this one is visited primarily by hummers).

Widespread in western North America is A. flavescens and A. brevistyla

The ancestors of the long-spurred garden hybrid columbines are the western and southwestern US species A. chrysantha, A. longissima, A. chaplinei and A. coerulea. Aquilegia chaplinei is a dwarf version of A. chrysantha, described in the dwarf columbine article. Aquilegia coerulea can also be dwarf, but tall forms do exist. Its two-toned blue and white, long-spurred flowers are unmistakable. Aquilegia chrysantha is the classic long-spurred yellow columbine of SW USA. Aquilegia longissima is often considered a variety of it but is distinguished by its super long ( up to 15 cm!) spurs.

The long-spurred species include A. longissima, A. chrysantha and A. coerulea

This list of taller columbines is not exhaustive and you may come across other species listed in specialty seed catalogues or seed-exchanges. The multitude of hybrids are, of course, much appreciated in the garden, but there is a special charm exhibited by the wild species columbines.

I would like to thank the following people for the use of their pictures: poppysue for A. alpina and A. coerulea Grasmussen for A. brevistyla

About Todd Boland

About Todd Boland

I reside in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. I work as a research horticulturist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden. I am one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Wildflower Society and the current chair of the Newfoundland Rock Garden Society. My garden is quite small but I pack it tight! Outdoors I grow mostly alpines, bulbs and ericaceous shrubs. Indoors, my passion is orchids. When not in the garden, I'm out bird watching, a hobby that has gotten me to some lovely parts of the world.


The perennial columbine (Aquilegia) blooms from mid-spring to early summer. Here’s how to plant and grow columbine flowers in your garden!

Columbines, also known as Granny’s Bonnet, are known for their bell-shaped, spurred flowers, which range in color from light pastels to bright reds, yellows, oranges, purples, and bi-colors. There are over 70 species!

The leaves have a lacy appearance. While they look delicate, columbine are very hardy and resilient—being deer-resistant and drought-tolerant.

The flowers are very attractive to butterflies, bees, moths, and hummingbirds!

Sow columbine seeds directly into the ground in the spring. Allow the plant to self-seed and it will produce many volunteer seedlings!

See the Delicate Beauty of Columbine


Columbines Are A Useful Addition To The Permaculture Garden

Most gardeners think of Aquilegia as an ornamental flower for garden beds, cottage style or wildflower gardens. These pretty perennials have more uses though than just looking pretty!
The delicate looking foliage as well as the flowers are edible and can be added to salads or soups. The leaves can also be cooked.

Try the flowers in salads to add some color to it. They have a nice sweet flavor.
The leaves are best in spring and early summer before they start getting too tough.

The flowers appear from spring to early summer and attract many beneficial pollinators. They are also a good nectar source for bees. The seeds are appreciated by many birds and other wildlife.
Columbines are well suited for forest gardens in the herbaceous layer. They are very easy to grow and get by with minimal to no maintenance.

The plants themselves are short-lived ( about 2-3 years) but they self-seed without any problems in most gardens so the short life span is no problem.


Encourage additional flowering by deadheading the plant regularly to get rid of faded blooms. If you wish to avoid self-seeding, cut back the foliage and seedpods in the fall months.

It's not hard to grow columbine flowers from seeds, but be aware that they usually do not blossom until year two. Additionally, the seeds need a three- to four-week cold spell before germination will occur, which you can ensure by keeping the seed packets in the refrigerator before sowing.

Plant the columbine seeds in moist soil in a warm, sunny indoor location. It will take the seeds about 30 days to germinate. Once the seedlings develop a pair of true leaves and have reached 3 to 4 inches tall, transplant them outside.


Coumbine Common Disease Problems

Botrytis: This fungus causes a grey mold on flowers, leaves, stems and buds. It thrives in cool wet weather conditions. Burpee Recommends: Remove affected plant parts, avoid watering at night and getting water on the plant when watering. Make sure plants have good air circulation. Contact your Cooperative Extension Service for fungicide recommendations.

Damping Off: This is one of the most common problems when starting plants from seed. The seedling emerges and appears healthy then it suddenly wilts and dies for no obvious reason. Damping off is caused by a fungus that is active when there is abundant moisture and soils and air temperatures are above 68 degrees F. Typically, this indicates that the soil is too wet or contains high amounts of nitrogen fertilizer. Burpee Recommends: Keep seedlings moist but do not overwater avoid over-fertilizing your seedlings thin out seedlings to avoid overcrowding make sure the plants are getting good air circulation if you plant in containers, thoroughly wash them in soapy water and rinse in a ten per cent bleach solution after use.

Downy Mildew: This fungus causes whitish gray patches on the undersides and eventually both sides of the leaves. Burpee Recommends: Rotate crops with plants in a different family. Avoid overhead watering. Provide adequate air circulation, do not overcrowd plants. Do not work around plants when they are wet.

Powdery Mildew: This fungus disease occurs on the top of the leaves in humid weather conditions. The leaves appear to have a whitish or greyish surface and may curl. Burpee Recommends: Avoid powdery mildew by providing good air circulation for the plants by good spacing and keeping weeds under control. Contact your Cooperative Extension Service for fungicide recommendations.

Root Knot Nematodes: Microscopic worm-like pests that cause swellings (galls) to form on roots. Plants may wilt or appear stunted. This is a serious problem in many Southern states. Burpee Recommends: Do not plant into infested soil. Grow resistant varieties. Try planting ‘Nema-Gone’ marigolds around your plants.

Columbine Common Pest Problems

Aphids: Greenish, red, black or peach colored sucking insects can spread disease as they feed on the undersides of leaves. They leave a sticky residue on foliage that attracts ants. Burpee Recommends: Introduce or attract natural predators into your garden such as lady beetles and wasps who feed on aphids. You can also wash them off with a strong spray, or use an insecticidal soap.

Columbine Sawfly: Green caterpillars can defoliate plants. Feeding begins on the leaf edges and progresses inward and the caterpillars often hide under the leaves if they know someone is approaching. Burpee Recommends: Handpick and remove, or use an insecticidal soap.

Leafminers: These insects bore just under the leaf surface causing irregular serpentine lines. The larvae are yellow cylindrical maggots and the adults are small black and yellow flies. They do not usually kill plants, but disfigure the foliage. Burpee Recommends: Remove affected foliage at the first sign of damage.

Stalk Borer: The larvae of this insect tunnel up and down inside the plant stem causing the plants to wilt. By the time the plant wilts it is too late to save it. The larva is 1.5 inches long, greyish brown with one dorsal stripe and two lateral stripes on each side. The lateral stripes on the front half are interrupted and the lower brown stripe extends forward onto the side of the head. The eggs hatch in May to early June, after the moth lays them the previous September or October. Burpee Recommends: Remove and destroy all plant debris and nearby weeds.

Thrips: Thrips are tiny needle-thin insects that are black or straw colored. They suck the juices of plants and attack flower petals, leaves and stems. The plant will have a stippling, discolored flecking or silvering of the leaf surface. Thrips can spread many diseases from plant to plant. Burpee Recommends: Many thrips may be repelled by sheets of aluminum foil spread between rows of plants. Remove weeds from the bed and remove debris from the bed after frost. Check with your Cooperative Extension Service for pest controls.

Columbine FAQs

Will columbine produce flowers the first year from seed? Columbine sown in spring will not bloom the first year however, plants started in fall will bloom the following spring.

Why did I have poor germination with my columbine? Columbine seeds need a chill period to germinate: Seed started indoors should be sown, placed into ziplock bags and refrigerated for 3-4 weeks.

Can I grow columbine in a container? Yes, smaller varieties are ideal for containers.

What are those squiggly lines on my columbine leaves? Columbine is extremely susceptible to leaf miner, which is the insect that is causing the lines. Remove affected leaves when you see the damage. It will only disfigure the plant, not kill it.

Are columbines deer resistant? Yes in general they are deer and rabbit resistant.

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Watch the video: Aquilegia Biedermeier Columbine. Gorgeous, mix of Easy to Grow Perennials