All-American Columbines

Today’s best cultivars owe their beauty to two western species

by ROBERT NOLD

THE COLUMBINE—few flowers are less in need of an introduction, and few more redolent of the essence of gardening, with its concomitant images of continuity, concupiscence, and demise. Gardeners have cultivated columbines for hundreds of years, and will no doubt continue to do so for centuries more. Columbines, as a rule, do not live forever, nor do gardeners; but it is gardeners who, in the peculiar pursuit of their passions, have caused certain columbines to live very close to something like forever. Columbines are distributed throughout the northern hemisphere in temperate regions, mostly growing on calcareous limestone soils.

TWO OUTSTANDING SPECIES

Aquilegia chrysantha (“golden-flowered”) is a robust, beautiful plant, with flowering stems 16 to 48 inches high, usually triternate (sometimes biternate) basal leaves, and large, erect, more or less upward-facing golden-yellow flowers, with exserted stamens. It is difficult to mistake this species for any other in the genus—except, of course, for the other species that some botanists believe to be part of a larger A. chrysantha complex.

Aquilegia chrysantha is native to moist places, roughly from the Grand Canyon southward, through New Mexico (the type locality is in the Organ Mountains), the Davis Mountains of western Texas, and into northern Mexico (Sonora and Chihuahua), with an oddly disjunct population in south-central Colorado.

The parent of several garden hybrids, thanks to its large flowers, A. chrysantha has hosted the usual proliferation of horticultural forms as well. Those originating in the 19th century bore pseudo-botanical names: ‘Alba’ was of course white (“an exquisite dream-like variety,” wrote the British rock gardener Reginald Farrer), ‘Grandiflora Alba’ was a large white (how large was not specified, just large), and ‘Grandiflora Sulphurea’, large again, had sepals “deep cream” and blades “creamy yellow,” according to Philip Munz, who is considered the principal authority in the genus. Some modern selections of A. chrysantha are ‘Silver Queen’ (white) and ‘Yellow Queen’ (yellow, incredible though it may seem). Most plants sold as A. chrysantha in the trade are actually ‘Yellow Queen’ or something else quite similar—huge, golden yellow, gloriously beautiful, and very long-lived.

Aquilegia coerulea is the columbine to most people, even nongardeners. The typical plant of A. coerulea grows about 36 inches tall in wooded areas, with biternately compound basal leaves, the leaflets somewhat thin, green, and glabrous above and glabrous or pubescent beneath, 3/4 to 1 3/4 of an inch long. The flowers are erect. The sepals are spreading, variously ovate, acute to obtuse, 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches long, and are of a most beautiful sky blue, as are the spurs, which may be spreading outward or almost straight, 11/4 to 1 3/4 of an inch long. The blades are white, sometimes slightly divergent, 1/2 to I inch long. The stamens are included. Aquilegia coerulea is native to central and western Colorado, northern New Mexico, and southern Wyoming, usually in open clearings in forests.

Curiously, this plant is always noted as being the state flower of Colorado, even by those who have never seen the state and who never mention other slate flowers. There must be some mystical connotation in the eyes of many; certainly otherwise staid authors have burst out into poetic rapture when describing the species. The authors, or at least one of them, of the earliest New Mexican flora (1915) wrote, “The great blossoms, sometimes six inches in diameter, look like bits of fallen sky, and when the plants cover acres of meadow, as they sometimes do, no words can be found to do them justice.”

Like other members of the genus, A. coerulea hybridizes readily with other species; as Farrer cautioned long ago, in order to obtain the true plant it may be necessary to procure wild-collected seed or purchase plants that have been grown from seed collected from the true species. Even in its native home, I find that many of the plants sold as the “blue columbine” usually turn out to be red or pink.

Horticultural forms of A. coerulea seem mostly to have genetic material of other species mixed into them; this is particularly true, it would seem, of plants with sepals and spurs in shades of red and those with yellow blades. Forms that are possibly pure A. coerulea may be available as ‘Alba’ or ‘Albiflora’ (both white, of course). The cultivar ‘Snow Queen’ may also be pure A. coerulea.

‘Crimson Star’, a gorgeous thing with red spurs and sepals and cream-colored blades, is fortunately still available in the nursery trade. A red A. coerulea may strike some as suspect. Where does the red come from? If it comes from one of the red-flowered columbines, there seems to be no other trace of their influence, such as nodding flowers or stout spurs.

HOME-GROWN HYBRIDS

Long before the sixties and the Summer of Love, columbines were practicing free love. The genus is notorious for the interfertility of its individual species, and species readily hybridize with almost any member of their genus, species, or cultivar within sight. The most valuable hybrids, and possibly the most valuable garden plants all in all, are the crosses between A. chrysantha and A. coerulea. They have the minor disadvantage of being fairly short-lived and the major desirability of being uniformly beautiful. They are easily raised from seed, and are, of course, readily available almost anywhere plants are sold throughout temperate North America.

The best-known strain of the older series of hybrids is ‘Mrs. Scott Elliott’, seed of which is still sometimes available. The strain offers coerulea-chrysantha-type plants with sepals and spurs in various shades from purple to pink to white, with white or off-white blades.

The ‘Olympia’ strain has plants with long, straight or curving spurs and offers handsome bicolors with names that give at least some clue as to what colors to expect (‘Blue and White’, for example). Like the ‘Mrs. Scott Elliott’ strain, plants come reasonably true from seed.

Members of the ‘McKana’s Giant’ strain, easily the most popular columbines for the garden, are slightly smaller versions (to 30 in.) of the ‘Mrs. Scott Elliott’ strain, from which they were reputedly derived; again they offer coerulea-chrysantha-type flowers in various shades. A Burpee offering, ‘McKana’s Giant’ won the All-America Selections bronze medal in 1955, and plants are still very much on the market.

The term F1, (first filial generation) hybrid is applied, generally, to the offspring of a cross between two species; here it is used to identify the offspring of two parents inbred solely for the purpose of creating a race of plants with stable, definable characteristics. The most notable F1 hybrid columbines are those of the Songbird series. These plants were the creation of the late Charles L. Weddle, Jr., of Paonia, Colorado. Weddle crossed A. coerulea with ‘McKana’s Giant’ strain and the Dwarf Fairyland series to create the Songbird series; these columbines come in different heights and have slightly different applications in the garden. Songbird series plants are often available in garden centers; they are also available as seed strains. All are extremely beautiful and well worth acquiring. ‘Blue Jay’ is dark blue and white, and grows to 30 inches. ‘Blue Bird’ is light blue and white, grows to 24 inches. ‘Dove’ has white flowers and grows to 24 inches; ‘Goldfinch’ is pale yellow and grows to the same height, as does ‘Robin’, which has pale pink sepals and white blades. ‘Cardinal’ grows to 18 inches and has deep red sepals and white blades. ‘Bunting’ is essentially the same as ‘Blue Bird’ but grows to 20 inches and is often recommended for the rock garden.

GROWING COLUMBINES

Here the mysteries of growing columbines are fully revealed for the first time. Buy a plant, dig a hole in any old soil in full sun or dappled shade, put the plant in the hole, push dirt around the plant, and water it. If the plant is large, it might bloom the same year it is planted; otherwise, it is not unreasonable to expect flowers the second year after planting.

Watering young plants is critical. Newly planted plants should receive water at least every other day, every day if planted during a hot summer. Close attention to the plants when they are young will make for a much healthier plant and less stressful gardening.

The life span of columbines in the garden varies a little with the species. Some, like Aquilegia chrysantha, seem to be fairly long-lived; others, like A. coerulea, may last three or four years and then die, leaving dozens of seedlings. The biennial nature of some columbines should not, I hope, detract from our desire to grow them, so long as we understand the plants’ intentions to give up the ghost at just the time we are planning to show off our garden to visitors.

Deadheading (removing spent flowers) is essential to ensure that columbines, regardless of species, have a reasonable life span in the garden. The flowering stalk should be cut down as soon as the flowers have faded. If you want to save seed, do so on a plant you can spare; plants spend a great deal of energy producing seed, and this energy is best devoted to producing new basal growth for next year.

One final observation on the matter of soil: p H. Most of the species (and by extension their hybrids) grow on calcareous soils in the wild. This does not mean that they have to settle for alkaline soil and really wish they were growing in acidic garden soil; it means that this is the type of soil in which they were born and in which they have speciated over the centuries. If you have an acid soil and want to grow columbines, then adding some horticultural limestone is essential. H

For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 122.From Columbines, Aquilegia. Paraquilegia, and Semiaquilegia by Robert Nold, @2003 by Robert Nold. Published by arrangement with Timber Press, wwwtimberpress.com.

Propagating Columbines

FOR GARDENERS, propagation of columbines is simple. Unlike many other members of the Ranunculaceae, columbine seed does not appear to have a short life span and need not be sown fresh. Fresh seed, however, will germinate fairly quickly. Temperatures of 70 to 75°F are recommended, with the seed exposed to light. In four or five weeks, seedlings will be ready to be transplanted to larger pots.

Seed can be sown indoors in winter, subjected to nighttime temperatures of 50 to 55°F, and transplanted sometime within 15 to 22 weeks, depending on the variety.

Seed can also be sown in midwinter outdoors, or subjected to about three weeks of cold treatment in the refrigerator at roughly 40°F. Subjecting seed to cold treatment to promote germination is called vernalization; this is certainly the easiest method for the gardener with little spare time.

A good soilless mix for a germination medium is equal parts sand, perlite, and decomposed organic material, preferably with minimal peat content. The results are pretty much the same whether you use a scientifically blended mix or just improvise.

The seeds are sown on top of the soilless mix and lightly pressed into the mix. The pots are then left to stand in a pan full of water, so that the mix absorbs the water from the bottom; this may take an hour or so. Once the seeds have fully imbibed, it is imperative that they not dry out again. (The seeds may not actually die, but they may be forced into an ever deeper dormancy.)

In difficult gardening climates, seedlings grown outdoors are much more easily transplanted than either seedlings grown indoors or plants purchased from a greenhouse.

Increasing plants by division is possible; plants can be gently prized apart in late winter, before new growth starts, and replanted. The success rate will not be great; this is because the roots tend to delve deeply, and the feeder roots may be beyond the reach of a spade.–R.N.

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One thought on “All-American Columbines

  1. Nice article about Aquilegia. One small correction….I worked with Charlie Weddle on the development of the Songbird series… and he had long since move to Palisade Colorado and was no longer in Paonia. He was a great man…and loved his work! I love to see that his flowers are still around.

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