When we delve into an herbal perennial's origins, we usually tell you that it originated in the Mediterranean, where it hobnobbed with ancient Greeks and Romans. At some point, we'd mention how Pliny the Elder documented its use—in combination with the saliva of a hypothermic lizard and fermented in the skull of a rabid bunny—as a treatment for carbuncles.
As interesting as all that might be, the true natural history of columbines is a departure from that of many of our favorite herbs and flowers. And while many of us think of this flower as an iconic wild North American native species, it's not.
But columbines didn't arrive on leaky ships with early explorers or colonial settlers. Nope. The wild columbines we find here originated in eastern Europe and Asia and probably arrived here on the backs of freaking MAMMOTHS. How metal is that?
A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Pleistocene
When the Ice Age caused sea levels to recede, the land bridge between Siberia and North America, referred to as Beringia, became a corridor for mass migrations between both continents. Camels went that-a-way, and wooly mammoths and other critters came this way, and plants propagated, re-seeded, and crept across the Strait...and some seeds were given a boost by birds or entangled in the fur of beasts. That's how, between 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, the earliest forms of the Aquilegia genus arrived in what is now Alaska, and quickly propagated throughout North America, adapting to different environments and climates over time.
"DNA analyses have determined two European species and one Asian species form the ancestral group from which all other species of Aquilegia evolved."
— "Aquilegia Express: Columbine Natural History," USDA Forest Service
The original Aquilegia, those that stayed behind in the "Old World," continued to develop into their own varieties. Many of those are popular cultivars and hybrids that did eventually come across with European settlers to be grown in US gardens.
Part of Aquilegia's adaptive strategy, wherever it originated, was to evolve to the needs of local pollinators, altering their bloom colors, size, and nectar production accordingly. The presence of columbines helps benefit other plants that rely on these specialized birds and insects.
North Americans are a hardy people, whether their cultures predated recorded history or they faced great hardships to arrive here. Columbines are no different. It's difficult to think of these spectacular plants without also associating them to a tragic moment in American history that occurred at a school named after the wildflowers. Like columbines, the survivors have persisted, and for many of us, growing Aquilegia varieties is a way of honoring that tenacity of spirit.
Notable Historical References
According to Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor at the University of Vermont, gardeners have cultivated columbines for at least 400 years. Mentions of the plant appeared in the writings of English farmer Thomas Tusser in 1550, and in Shakespeare's Hamlet, columbines symbolize adultery.
Around these times, columbines were used medicinally for a number of ailments, and here, Native Americans used small amounts of columbine roots for ulcers. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) sternly advised against the consumption of the plant; it's toxic to children and pets in large quantities or concentrations.
The genus name Aquilegia is derived from the Latin name for "eagle", inspired by the flower's talon-like "spurs." "Columbine" is derived from columba, the Latin name for dove or pigeon.
In old English, columbines were often called "culverwort," derived from culfre (pigeon) and wort (plant).
Since many columbine varieties draw hummingbirds to the garden, one would think Trochilidae could be squeezed in there somewhere, too. You know; in keeping with the bird theme and all.
Columbines in the Garden
A member of the buttercup family, columbines are upright growing plants with graceful, blue-green foliage and daffodil-like blooms...if daffodils stepped up their game a little. Columbines have feathery, graceful foliage that makes a gorgeous groundcover even when the plant isn't in bloom.
Columbines, though perennial, require re-seeding or re-planting every 3 to 4 years. Most varieties don't bloom their first season but they're certainly worth the wait. We recommend planting a batch of columbines each season so you've always got plants in their prime. They self-seed easily, so the lazy gardener can just let them naturalize.
Columbines are great "moon garden" plants, meaning their blooms are ideal for nocturnal pollinators such as the enormous Hawk Moth (which also happens to be the parent of tomato hornworms, so that might be a wash).
They make fantastic rock garden specimens and xeriscaping plants and require little care. Given that you have so many sizes and colors from which to choose, you're sure to find a columbine that fits in with your garden plan...or lack thereof, if you like the natural, chaotic aesthetic of wildflower gardens.
Following are the general requirements for growing Columbine from seed, though individual varieties have their own preferences. Be sure to refer to your seed packet for details.
USDA Hardiness Zones: 3-9
Sunlight Preferences: Columbines prefer morning sun, but do very well in partial shade, especially in hotter climates.
Water Requirements: Columbines are drought-tolerant once they're underway. We recommend watering them away from their root crowns to prevent crown rot. Don't let them sit in soggy soil; provide consistent irrigation for young plants, easing off to allow them to dry out in between waterings as they mature.
Soil Quality Requirements: Columbines require well-drained, medium soils. They'll thrive in anything but clay. Prepare your garden site with aged compost to aid in draining and the moisture retention required to get your seedlings established. Shoot for a pH of 6 to 8; err on the side of alkalinity.
Plant Height: 1' to 3' tall, though a few varieties grow as high as 5'.
Plant Width: 1' to 2' spread.
Bloom Time: Mid-spring through early summer.
Flowers: Columbine's five colorful sepals appear to be part of the bloom itself; behind the stem, the sepals extend into pointed spurs in most types, but a few others are spurless.
The flowers' fused petals form a cup-shaped tube with delicate, honeycomb-like compartments within. Fancier columbines are even "double-flowered." Some of the flowers lazily nod at the ends of their tender stalks, while others maintain a more upright position.
Plant nodding and upright columbines next to one another, turn up your favorite Nordic death metal album, squint, and look from one plant to the other really, really fast. Look! It's just like they're headbanging!
Columbines might be blue, indigo, violet, yellow, pink, or red, with many varying shades and combinations in between, and their fragrance has been compared to the scent of fresh-cut hay.
Foliage and Growth Habit: Columbine flower stalks grow upward from dense mounds of three-lobed blue-green leaves. The stalks themselves might take on a tint similar to the flower's hue, especially in the red and burgundy colored varieties.
Pests and Diseases: Columbines are susceptible to powdery mildew. Be sure to give them plenty of space for air circulation, and destroy any affected leaves. Columbines are a known target for leaf miners, which make etch-marks on the foliage but otherwise don't do too much damage. Rabbits and deer generally avoid members of the Aquilegia genus.
Maintenance: Clip spent flower heads and stems to encourage continuous blooming.
Accelerated irrigation after the end of the flowering period will keep the foliage vibrant for a while longer, but once it crashes, cut it down to soil level.
Growing Columbine from Seed
Columbines germinate best when the days are warm and the nights are cool, so plan to sow them in early spring immediately after your last hard frost. If you plant them indoors, you can likely skip the heat mat but be sure to give them plenty of light. We recommend a sunny window or a fluorescent plant light for about 12 hours a day. Plant your indoor starts 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date.
For best results, stick your columbine seed packets in the coldest part of your refrigerator for 4-6 weeks prior to planting. This stratification, followed by a return to warm temperatures, helps trigger germination. You can also try using cold stratification methods described here.
If you're starting your seeds indoors, be aware that peat is acidic. Add 1/4 tablespoon lime per gallon of peat, or consider using sterilized seedling soil. We also like coconut coir, which is neutral.
- Seed Depth: Columbines require sunlight to germinate; plant them on the soil surface.
- Seed Spacing: 2 to 3 seeds 1' to 3' feet apart; for pots, put 2 to 3 seeds per pot.
- Germination Time: 14 to 28 days.
Be sure to keep your growing area evenly moist, using the finest setting on your garden hose or—for indoor starts—a hand mister so as to prevent driving your seeds under the soil.
Your Source for the Freshest, Most Viable Seeds
Columbines are one of many plants that require the freshest seeds to germinate. Seed Needs guarantees your best shot at a successful gardening season, as we maintain a high turnover and only keep in stock what we can expect to sell in any given season. We'd rather risk selling out our seeds than selling out our loyal customers!Contact us to make sure you don't miss out on your favorite varieties, and keep our blog bookmarked for valuable growing tips. We're always adding new vegetable, ornamental, and herb plants, and we'd love to hear from you if you have any requests!