James Lakin, M.D., Master Gardener
Columbine or Columbina was an enduring character of Italian commedia del’arte, coquettish,heavily made up, outspoken with almost always something to say. Her botanical namesake, the columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is also an outspoken herald of spring, brightly made up, making a statement in the garden or the wild. The eastern red columbine is native to the entire Midwest. You will find this beauty in rock outcrops, rocky or sandy woodlands as well as savannas.
To successfully grow columbine in the garden it is very helpful to provide extra drainage. Usually a rock, gravel or sand underlayment will do the trick although for years my columbines have spread and reseeded in my raised beds with no other preparations. They also look well in rock gardens or other stone or concrete works. Columbines can be a good choice for container gardens as well. It is important to allow for reseeding as individual columbines seldom live more than three years. They do best in full sun although they tolerate light to moderate shade well. Plant height varies from one to four feet, the taller plants often putting on a magnificent display of very showy ruby red flowers.
Pollination of Columbine is primarily carried out by the ruby-throated hummingbird although an occasional swallowtail butterfly may pitch in. Aquilegia canadensis flowers in the late spring over several weeks. It then produces a fruiting capsule by midsummer which disperses small black seeds before it disintegrates. The compound leaves of the basal portion of the fruiting body remain into the fall, acting as a host for leaf mining moth larvae. You can see the results of the larvae’s feeding as scrolling markings appear on the leaves.
As you might anticipate, any plant as showy as the columbine would fall into the hands of the breeder to produce even showier cultivars. A number of very attractive varieties are on the market. Two of my favorites are “Swan Mix” and “Origami Mix”. These are by no means native to anywhere and their value to pollinators is suspect. But as long as you make sure to plant plenty of the native species, I think you can admire the beauty of the cultivars with a clean conscience!