Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Perennials

Columbines (page 2 of 3)

by Kathryn Van Horn

Tall and Stately, Dwarf and Winsome

Tall and Stately, Dwarf and Winsome
My first love was--and still is--Aquilegia caerulea. One of the larger columbines at 2-1/2 feet, its beautiful bi-colored blossoms are long-spurred and flaring, with blue spurs and sepals and white petals. An occasional flower may be all blue.

Another tall North American native is the red and yellow Canadian columbine, A. canadensis. It also has long spurs, but the blossom is quite narrow, an unusual shape among columbines. Like many other brightly colored, tube-shaped flowers, it is attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies.

A southwestern native is A. chrysantha. It is a 3-1/2 foot-high, golden-flowered columbine that has contributed much to modern hybrids. 'Texas Gold', recently introduced by Texas A&M horticulturists, is a selection from plants that grow in the Big Bend region of west Texas. Valued for its heat tolerance and butter yellow flowers, it's recommended for gardeners who live in the mid- to lower South.

The western columbine is A. formosa. Usually found in the shade of sycamores or oaks, it grows throughout much of the West--Utah to California to Alaska. Mature plants are 1-1/2 to 3 feet tall and bear nodding, 1- to 2-inch, red and yellow flowers.

Winsome A. flabellata, the Japanese fan columbine, is a popular 18-inch-high dwarf type. The flowers are short-spurred and similar in shape to the granny's bonnet, but with the celestial color combination of A. caerulea in a deeper blue. Even smaller at 6 to 12 inches high is A. flabellata pumila, also available as all-white variants, 'Alba' and 'Nana Alba'.

Midsized A. fragrans from northern India adds a hint of fragrance to its charms. Blossoms are short-spurred and similar in appearance to the Japanese fan columbine, but with a little more flare to the sepals. The flowers are creamy white, sometimes tinted pink. Though long-lived, A. fragrans has been a shy bloomer for me. Perhaps it would be more productive in a sunnier, drier site. On the other hand, a California correspondent reports it is neither long-lived, floriferous, nor particularly fragrant in her garden.

The European wild columbine, A. vulgaris, must win the prize for being available in the most varieties. For centuries it has been a well-loved and widely grown cottage garden flower. The short-spurred flowers come in many shades of pink, maroon, purple, and white, but are usually not bi-colored.

I find one of the double forms of A. vulgaris, 'Flore Pleno', (or sometimes, 'Plena'), very attractive; only the petals are doubled, the sepals and spurs retain their characteristic graceful form, as if "granny" had added a few more frills to the trimming of her bonnet. A more unusual double cultivar, 'Nora Barlow', is the oldest known columbine. (Records indicate it was known 300 years ago as the "rose columbine.") It has spurless blooms of an older type sometimes called "clematis-flowered" because they're a mass of pointed, doubled sepals. The result is a flower that more resembles a miniature dahlia than a familiar columbine. Its colors are shades of magenta, green, and white. 'Nora Barlow' and the other clematis-flowered types are curiosities. To me, they lack the dainty nodding grace of most columbines; they're more interesting than beautiful.

'Hensol Harebell', a cross between A. vulgaris and A. alpina (the alpine columbine), is a rich blue-purple in color and has proved to be exceptionally long-lived in my garden. The variety 'Woodside' (A. vulgaris, Vervaeneana group) is notable for its yellow or cream variegated foliage.
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