Last Updated on August 15, 2022 by Plant Mom Care
Aquilegia or columbine, is a perennial genus of around 70 species of plants belonging to the Ranunculaceae (buttercup) family. They are indigenous to Europe and North America and usually grow in woodlands and meadows at higher altitudes.
The Latin name refers to the petals that look like eagle talons, with their common name “columbine” coming from the Latin name “Columba” or “dove” because the inverted flower resembles five doves gathered together. One species, A. coerulea, was voted Colorado’s official flower.
These perennials have woody, erect stems, 15 – 20-inches tall, with a 12 – 18-inches spread and thick rhizomatous roots. The green compound leaves comprise two or 3 leaflets and alternate like the basal leaves, while the upper leaves look like bracts.
The bell-shaped bisexual flowers bloom for around four weeks or more with colors ranging from blue, white, yellow, orange, red, pink, and purple-bronze. The fruit contains many seeds and forms at the pistils of the flowers.
Their nectar is largely consumed by hummingbirds and other long-billed birds. They are food plants for the larvae of moths, butterflies, and a specific species of bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) that harvests their pollen.
These tough plants are mostly short-lived perennials although they spread by self-seeding or by rhizomatous spread and will keep growing in the garden for many years.
While several native species are usually grown in gardens, many hybrids and cultivars have been bred and developed over the years, with still more being developed every year and are better cultivated as biennials.
Some hybrids produce larger flowers while some are short-lived, with others not producing seeds. They can crossbreed and gardeners who cultivate two different species sometimes end with new self-seeded volunteers with a different appearance.
Aquilegia Light Requirements
These plants can withstand direct sun in spring, but they will appreciate shade in summer after the flowering season ends and they are recharging their energy stores for the next growing season.
For good flower production and healthier plants, growing them under partial shade is recommended. Mulching might be necessary for places with hot summers.
Young plants have to be watered well until they get established – signs that they are established will show up as plenty of new foliage starts appearing. This can be reduced to weekly watering or even more in dry summers.
They prefer average to moderate humidity.
They prefer temperatures between 50 – 68°F. These plants are sensitive to higher temperatures that might affect flower production, while cool temperatures encourage them to produce more flowers.
They can tolerate frosty temperatures down to -20 or -40°F, depending on the specific variety, so they can withstand very cold winters without damage. Their foliage turns red in late summer and fall before eventually retreating to their roots in winter.
They grow well in almost any soil provided that it is well-draining but grows better with sandy, loamy soil and not as good in heavy clayey soil.
These plants can be cultivated in containers and will need repotting in two or three years or after they outgrow their containers when grown as indoor container plants, they will produce beautiful foliage but no flowers as they thrive better in outdoor soil.
Choose a deeper and as wide container to replace the old one since they can spread by their roots. Use suitable soil when moving the plant into the new container and water the well when finished.
While seeds can be scattered on the soil and grow throughout spring, they might not resemble the parent since most varieties available today are crossbred hybrids. Plants germinated from seeds could take almost two years before they start blooming.
In addition to this, some varieties might not produce seeds and have to be propagated by division – not an easy task since these plants have deep roots.
Propagation by seed
After the flower dries up, harvest the seed pods, splitting them to collect the seeds. Store them in a refrigerator – the seeds need a 3 – 4-week cold period to germinate.
Seeds need light for germination, so just scatter them onto the soil and sprinkle a little soil to cover them. The soil should be damp until germination occurs in about 30 days.
When the seedlings form two or three real leaves, they can be moved somewhere else. Continue watering them until they get established with plenty of new foliage.
Propagation by division
If you have to divide, dig deeply circling the roots and lift them without disturbing the soil. Divide it immediately carefully, without removing or disturbing the soil, and replant in a new spot.
They need to feed every month with liquid fertilizer to boost thicker foliage growth and more flower production.
Deadheading spent and faded flowers, including seed pods, might prolong flowering. When flowering has ended, cut the stems to the ground. The plants will either return the next year or self-seeded to replace themselves.
Pruning them down to their base leaves after flowering could encourage a second growth in a few weeks and another flowering period. If necessary, apply mulch to protect the roots in very cold winters.
Aquilegia Common Problems
These plants are at risk from attacks from leaf miners, a pest that disfigures the foliage, but rarely kills the plants. Pesticides can deter them but are not recommended since the plants will survive, remove affected foliage to reduce the infestation. Aphids can also be a problem that can be treated with insecticidal soaps and/or neem oil.
A virulent fungus infection recently started attacking aquilegias and is a lingering problem in some places. First, a yellow splotch appears on the leaves that soon spread to the stems and flowers as a darker splotch, producing white powdery spores that eventually cover the entire plant.
Remove affected plants when it appears and don’t replant the area with these plants for a year or more since it is an airborne infection, it is intensified by wet weather and reduced air circulation, so allows some space between plants.