Aquilegia, commonly known as Columbine or Granny's Bonnet is an excellent garden perennial with attractive clouds of delicate, bell-shaped flowers and a wonderful lacy foliage that emerges early in the year. Blooming profusely for at least 4-6 weeks, from mid spring through summer (depending on varieties and regions), they provide a lovely and welcomed transition between the early spring bulbs and the peak garden season.

  • There are many colorful hybrid varieties or species to choose from, some with single or double, short-spurred or spurless flowers, and in a wide array of colors ranging from light pastels to bright yellow, from blue to violet to white to pink to red.

Paeonia, peony, Aquilegia, columbine, hidcote manor, gloucester, pink and blue flowers

Paeonia and Aquilegia at Hidcote Manor, in late May. ©National Trust Images/Stephen Robson (www.nationaltrust.org.uk)

  • Size can vary greatly, with dwarf varieties that don't get much taller than 4-6 in. (10-15 cm) and taller varieties that easily reach 3 ft. (90 cm).
  • Aquilegia performs best in full sun to part shade, in average, medium moisture, well-drained soils. Seriously dislikes poorly drained soils! Rich, moist soils in part shade are preferred. Do not let the soil dry out.
  • The bell-shaped flowers are not only attractive to gardeners. Hummingbirds, butterflies and bees love them too, while rabbits and deer tend to ignore them!
  • Easy to grow, and widely adaptable, Aquilegia is a welcomed addition to beds, borders, rock gardens, cottage gardens, shade gardens or naturalized areas. A classic element of herbaceous borders, Columbines mix beautifully with peonies, irises, alliums and roses. Their delicate fan-shaped foliage also provides a lovely contrast to Ferns, Hostas and blend well with other shade lovers, such has Hellebores and Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra spectabilis). You may plant Aquilegia in containers, but they will need regular watering.
  • Despite their delicate and airy appearance, Aquilegia are tougher plants than they appear. Although they tend to be short-lived perennials, lasting only two to three years, Aquilegia will self-seed prolifically and persist in the garden for years. Keep in mind that Aquilegia varieties readily cross pollinate. If you plant more than one variety, be prepared to see new colors and combinations. If self-sowing becomes a nuisance, shear the plants back in midsummer, to prevent seed pods from forming.

Growing Aquilegia

You can start Aquilegia from seed or plant.

  • Seeds can be sown directly in the garden in spring (after danger of frost has passed). The seeds need light to germinate, so press them on the soil surface and barely cover with soil. They will produce flowering plants the following spring. If you prefer starting your seeds indoors, they will require some pre-chilling: place them in the refrigerator in a plastic bag with some damp potting soil, 8-12 weeks before your last frost date. Then pot them up and move them to a warmer spot.
  • Plants can be planted in spring, 1 to 3 feet apart, depending on the variety. Prepare the garden bed by loosening the soil to a depth of 12-15 in. (30-37 cm), then mix in a 2-4 in. 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. Aguilegia plants should be planted with their crown at soil level. Carefully fill in around the root ball, and firmly but gently, tamp down the soil and water thoroughly.
  • Division is possible in the spring but it may take some time for the plant to recover.

Aquilegia Care

  • Columbine is prone to powdery mildew which develop during rainy, wet weather or when daytime temperatures are warm and nights are cool. 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 will help resist powdery mildew.
  • Columbine is also susceptible to leaf miner. In such case, cut off and destroy the infested foliage after the plants have bloomed. The new leaves that will emerge later in the season will be miner-free.
  • Remove faded flowering stems to promote additional bloom. Cut to the ground when the foliage declines (around midsummer).
  • Contact with sap may irritate the skin