OUTER SPACE FLOWERS
In many places in the United
States columbines (Aquilegia ssp.) still grow wild.
Highbrow hybrids dominate the marketplace, but even
they seem to retain some of that wildness. While cleaning
out an overgrown greenhouse once, I noticed columbines
of indeterminate variety growing up through the cracks
between the slate floor’s slabs. In my own garden they
tend to self-seed, coming up everywhere but where I
intend them to be. They are much like cats, domesticated
to a point, but still inclined to go their own way.
Shakespeare celebrated columbines
in his works, as did Chaucer. They have been cultivated
in Europe for centuries, and in America ever since John
Winthrop, an early Puritan leader and governor of
the Massachusetts Bay colony, introduced a European
variety, probably Aquilegia vulgaris, here in the 1630’s.
A 1792 engraving of this species from a book on medicinal
plants is in the archives of the English Royal Botanic
Gardens at Kew. In an early case of cross-cultural
exchange, the great English plantsman, John Tradescant,
the younger, visited the young Virginia colony and sent
seeds of native North American Aquilegia canadensis
back to England in 1640. No matter where you live,
if you have a cottage-style garden, you probably have
some columbines in among the roses and hollyhocks.
The red and yellow Aquilegia
canadensis that intrigued Tradescant is one of the most
common native columbines. Despite its Canadian species
name, it blithely ignores manmade boundaries and flourishes
in much of the United States. With its nodding, complex
flowers, it is characteristic of many plants in the
genus. Individual blossoms are composed of several
small, elongated trumpets or bells that flare at the
tips. Aquilegia canadensis flowers also have the “spurs”
that are common to many columbines. These spurs are
actually modified petals that hold the nectar that makes
the plants so attractive to hummingbirds and other pollinators.
They also give the flowers an almost exotic look. A
good friend of mine, who gardens a little but observes
a lot, refers to columbines as “outer space flowers”
for this reason.
The horticultural marketplace
is full of columbines of all sorts. Almost all have
attractive green leaves, with each leaf composed of
three lobes. There are singles and doubles, tall and
short varieties, cultivars with variegated foliage,
and flowers that can be spurred or unspurred. In fact,
you can find a columbine to match even the most exotic
garden color scheme.
I recently ordered Aquilegia
x hybrida ‘Tower Blue’, which is similar to older cultivars
that sometimes go by the common name “Granny’s Bonnet”.
‘Tower Blue’ is a double variety, and it reminds me
less of an old-fashioned bonnet than of the rather complicated
hats worn by both Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother
over the years. I am very hopeful that the effect of
these small blue chapeaux will be charming rather than
fussy in my garden.
Many hybrid columbines have
been bred from the European Aquilegia vulgaris, including
a favorite of mine, ‘Magpie’. This magpie is an especially
attractive bird, with petals that are extremely dark
purple (almost black) with bright white edges. I also
like the double white varieties, that have no spurs
and look like they have been partially exploded. One
such cultivar is Aquilegia vulgaris ‘White Barlow’,
another is Aquilegia x hybrida ‘Sunlight White’. ‘Nora
Barlow’ Mix features double blossoms in an array of
blues, pinks, and purples as well as white.
One of the most floriferous
assortments of hybrid columbines is the “Music Series”.
These plants form 18-20-inch mounds, produce an abundance
of bi-colored blooms, and have the characteristic spurs.
For a taller mix, try Aquilegia x hybrida ‘McKana Giants’.
These rise to a statuesque 3-feet, and feature large,
spurred single flowers in a range of colors. If you
have a rock garden, or want columbines for the front
of a border, Aquilegia flabellata, a short Japanese
native with blue-green leaves works well. The ‘Nana’
hybrid has bi-colored flowers that are bluish-purple
Anyone who has columbine in
the garden probably also has leaf miners. These pests
work their way through columbine foliage, leaving a
characteristic meandering white trail behind them.
Unless you are extremely finicky, there is nothing much
to be done about leaf miners. Actually, the trails
are not that unattractive, and the overall vigor of
the plant is unaffected. You can, of course, pick off
the blighted leaves if they bother you.
Columbine is particularly
good for people who like a little randomness in the
garden. They self-seed freely if left to their own
devices. Since most of the varieties in cultivation
are hybrids, you can never be exactly sure what will
come up when the seeds germinate. Plant professionals
have this same problem, since propagation of columbines
is done almost exclusively from seed. If a particular
color or form meets all your needs in a particular area
of the garden, grow only that type. At least when nature
takes its course, and the pollinators make their rounds,
you have a chance of avoiding random variations.