The best job I ever had in college was the summer I worked in the Cherokee National Forest, tromping through remote woods cataloguing native and invasive plants of Eastern Tennessee. I remember one day stumbling across a patch of some of the most interesting plants I had ever seen. The leaves looked like small green mittens and the flame red flowers stood tall on sturdy stalks. It was my first exposure to wild columbine, and to this day it remains a favorite for any natural area or home garden.
Wild columbine is a perennial plant native to North America that grows well in just about any type of habitat, from rocky open woodlands to loamy or sandy soils. When in bloom in the spring, plants reaches 3 feet in height. The lobed, semi-evergreen leaves are bluish-green, and are quite striking in their own right. I like to mix columbine with pink muhly grass, allowing the blue-green foliage to contrast with the pink flowers and fine-textured leaves of the muhly grass.
The showcase for this plant, however, is the bright red and yellow nodding flowers that grow on tall, slender stalks. Instead of having separate flower parts, the petals of columbine are fused together and grow backwards into upright spires. In each of these spires there are little pockets of nectar that attract long-tongued animals like hummingbirds as well as moths and butterflies. The yellow stamens protrude downwards from the petals and offer a nice contrast to the reddish-pink petals.
Columbine is a versatile plant that thrives in well-drained soil and will self-seed to make attractive colonies. Because it is relatively easy to grow and readily establishes itself, columbine is a great choice for those areas of your yard where plants can be notoriously hard to grow. Columbine does well in partial shade, but I have found that once established, the mature plants will tolerate exposure to direct sun. If you grow columbine, watering is necessary only during the first few weeks of the establishment period; afterwards, columbine is drought tolerant, making it a good choice for those interested in low-maintenance, low-impact landscape plants.
Varieties of columbine
In addition to the native species, Aquilegia canadensis, which thrives in this region, there are hardy European cultivars available that also do well. Our native columbine has bright red and yellow flowers. The European cultivars are selections of Aquilegia vulgaris. The flowers of the European varieties come in various colors including blue, violet, pink, or white, and have shorter spurs. Mixing different varieties of columbine will give you contrasting flower colors in spring.
Columbine can be grown from seed or plants can be purchased from local garden centers. If you know someone who has columbine in their garden, collect fresh seed in June and July and sow them directly in your garden. This is the easiest way to propagate columbine, which does not transplant well. Seeds can also be purchased from garden centers or seed catalogs. Purchased seed will germinate better if given a cold treatment known as stratification. To stratify seeds, sow them in a container of potting soil, water well, place in a plastic bag and put in the refrigerator. Refrigerate for four to eight weeks, then place the container in a warm area out of direct sunlight. Check the container daily and remove the plastic bag as soon as seedlings emerge. Columbine seedlings are relatively slow growing and should be ready to plant in the garden a few months after germination.
It is reported that Native Americans used to crush the leaves of wild columbine in the belief that it made them more attractive to the opposite sex. While I cannot report on its potency for attracting a potential mate, I can say that it certainly held an allure for me the first time I saw it. Ever since, I have admired wild columbine for its interesting leaf texture and unusual flowers. There is also an intangible quality of this plant that draws people to it, which is part of what makes it a great addition to the landscape.
For more information on perennial and annual plants, visit ces.ncsu.edu where you can submit questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center by phone: If you live in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610.
Sam Marshall is the horticulture agent with the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension of NC State University, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.