The best college job I ever had was the summer I worked in the Cherokee National Forest, tromping through remote woods and cataloguing native and invasive plants of Eastern Tennessee. I remember one day stumbling across a patch of the 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 as a standout plant for any natural area or home garden.
Wild columbine is a perennial plant native to North America and grows well in just about any type of habitat, from rocky open woodlands, to loamy or sandy soils with moist or dry conditions. Because of these traits, wild columbine is a sturdy addition to your garden that will self-propagates for several years. Spreading by rhizomes, wild columbine blooms in the spring and grows up to 3 feet in height. The lobed, semi-evergreen leaves are bluish-green, and can be quite striking in their own right. In fact, a mixture of columbine and pink muhly grass can go quite well when planted near one another. The blue-green foliage provides contrast to 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 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 and can thrive in most types of habitats. Because it is relatively easy to grow and readily establishes itself, columbine is a great choice for those areas in your yard where plants can be notoriously hard to grow. Columbine does well in partially shaded areas of your garden, but I have found that once established, the mature plants will tolerate more 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, which makes it a good choice for those interested in low-maintenance, low-impact garden plants.
Varieties of columbine
While the native species, Aquilegia canadensis, does quite well in this region, there are other hardy European cultivars that also do well. The native columbine has the bright red and yellow flowers commonly associated with this species. The European cultivars, A. vulgaris, also have become well-established in this area. The flowers of the European varieties come in various other flower colors like blue, violet, pink, or white flowers with shorter spurs. Mixing varieties of columbine will give you contrasting flower colors in spring.
Caring for columbine
Columbine is easily propagated, which adds another level of versatility to this plant. Collected seeds can be stored for a period of up to 4 months and can be hand sown in the fall or early spring. You can also start seeds indoors in pots and then transplant in the spring. Because of the fluctuations in weather this time of year, starting columbine as transplants ensure that they are more tolerant to cooler nighttime temperatures common in the spring. Germination of seeds may take up to four weeks, so practice patience!
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 the unusual flowers. There is also something intangible for this plant that draws people to it, which makes it a great addition to the home garden.
For more information on perennial and annual plants like wild columbine, and saving seed for native 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 North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Brunswick County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.