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Plant of the Week: Columbine

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Latin: Aquilegia x hybrids

Picture of a columbine plant.
Hybrid columbines such as this member of the Songbird series come in a wide array of sizes and colors.

Columbines are one of the joys of the springtime woodland garden. The 100 or so species of columbines are native to North America, Europe and Asia. They belong to the buttercup family. Because they have been part of gardens for hundreds of years, they have been hybridized to achieve many garden types.

Columbines grow in a bewildering array of sizes and shapes, yet they’re all easy to recognize as columbines. The foliage is the most characteristic feature. It’s often a glaucous gray-green in color with leaves biternate (twice divided into segments of three) with the leaflets angular in outline. Plant size varies considerably with some only growing to 6 inches while others may reach 3 feet.

Blooms appear from mid-spring until early summer on a terminal panicle with individual flowers often nodding as they open. The blooms are in shades of blue, purple, white, pink, red, yellow or even brown. Single and double forms are also available. Individual flowers have five nectary tubes (spurs) that protrude from the rear of the flower.

In most Eurasian columbines, the spurs are shorter than the length of the flower and curved whereas North American columbines usually have elongated spurs that are longer than the length of the flower. Our columbines were, before the introduction of the domesticated bee, primarily pollinated by various moths and hummingbirds so the plants devised a different architecture to dole out the nectar.

Garden hybrids abound and every gardener has his or her favorite. The McKana’s Giant strain – a multiple-colored, long-spurred hybrid developed by Burpee and winner of an All-American Selection award in 1955 – remains one of the most common types. The Music series are similar but just a bit shorter.

The Songbird series, with individual cultivars named after various birds, are about 18 inches tall and are becoming increasingly common in the nursery trade because they can be flowered from seed the first year if started early enough.

Columbines are remarkably easy to grow as long as they are given a fertile, well drained soil. In the south they do best in light shade. Soil pH is not critical for the garden hybrids with the usual recommendation of 5.8 to 6.5 working fine.

Columbine plants are short lived by the standard of most perennials. Most hybrid plants live three or four years, and then the parent plant succumbs to old age. But in the meantime, it will have reseeded freely. Seedlings find the locations where moisture, sun and soil best meet their requirements. Though they reseed at will, few gardeners find them weedy or offensive.

If plants come up in unwanted areas they can easily be relocated. Self-sown seeds usually flower their second year. Because the plants are hybrids they will not come back true to type but an interesting array of plant types and flower colors always results.

Columbine leaf miner, the larval form of a tiny wasp, creates serpentine channels around the leaves. The damage doesn’t show up until after flowering but renders afflicted plants unsightly by early summer. Though unsightly the pest does little damage to the plant. Clipping and destroying infested leaves is the most practical solution.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - May 30, 2008


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.