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How To Grow Aquilegia Vulgaris – Common Name Columbine

How to grow aquilegia
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Aquilegia is not quite a herbaceous perennial as it does not fully die back over winter. A member of the Ranunculaceae family, columbine is common in hardiness zones 3-9 and through Europe. A wonderful, shy flower head that will bob along in the breeze, aquilegia is very pleasing when grown in clusters.

Growing Aquilegia – Columbine From Seed

Aquilegia will self seed. This is an unpredictable way to grow new plants as they are not true replicas of the first plant, instead a hybrid will occur. Cross pollination is also very common and this can throw up some pleasant surprises. Although columbine is a hardy perennial, it has a short lifespan of around 3-5 years. So self seeding is a vital part of this plants survival method.

You can make it more predictable by harvesting the seeds yourself and electing where to plant them on. This will give you the chance to adapt and change your flower beds, even wildflower meadows need work from us gardeners!

Aquilegia Green Apples

How To Harvest Aquilegia Seeds

This is a perfect method, if you have existing aquilegia columbine plants. If not there is nothing wrong with purchasing plants or seeds, just skip to the next section for sowing and care!

The wonderful thing about columbine is the long flowering season and to encourage this to be extended further you can dead head flowers as they start to go over. But wait just a little longer and the seed heads will start to form. They are the white, dried remains of the flower that will start to turn brown and crack to release the tiny seeds.

Columbine seeds are ready to harvest towards mid Autumn, depending on the flowering period of your variety. In general you can harvest as you go. In that aquilegia is happy as a hardy perennial and will not struggle if you take a few seed heads as it is still flowering. This means you can allow the plants to self-seed but harvest seeds as a back up or to make new plants as Spring time gifts for friends.

  • To harvest these seeds wait until the seed heads are white and then cut the stem to allow for around 5-6 inches at least.
  • You can bundle several of the columbine seed heads together and tie together with twine or an elastic band.
  • Use a paper bag over the seed heads and secure this in place with the twine or band.
  • Then hook a paper clip through and use it to hang the bunch upside down.
  • Hang in a cool, airy place with no chance of damp. This will allow the seeds to fall out and into the bag to be stored.
  • In about three weeks time the seed heads will have dried out and a small shake will dislodge any of the spare aquilegia seeds from the pods.
  • There is a lovely sound to this and you can keep the empty seed heads for flower arranging and making dried flower wreaths for an Autumnal door display.
  • Store your aquilegia seeds in a cool, dark location in an airtight container.

Aquilegia Rocky Mountain Blue

Sowing Columbine / Aquilegia Seeds

TOP TIP- Seeds sown in Spring will not produce flowers that year, however sowing your seeds in the Autumn / Fall will allow your columbine to establish enough to put out flowers the following Spring/Summer.

You can purchase seeds from nurseries and we have a few options below if your local nursery does not hold the stock. Aquilegia is easy to grow from seed and your germination rate will be good if you follow these tips and tricks.

  • Start your seeds in early Winter in trays of potting compost. Columbine will need a period of stratification to awaken the seeds. Stratification is where the cold will cause the seed germ to go into a chilled state, then the increase in temperature will tell it to wake up and start to put out shoots. They will also need sunlight.
  • If you intend to sow your aquilegia seeds in Spring or Summer you will need to offer a period of cold prior to sowing. This can be achieved by placing the seeds into an airtight container in your refrigerator for a minimum of two weeks. Or you can sow the seeds directly onto moist sand/potting compost mix and cover, then place into the fridge for several weeks.
  • The seeds are small so you will need to prepare the soil first and make sure it is an even surface. This will reduce movement of the seeds and possible clumping that will make it harder to thin out the seedlings later on. Aquilegia seeds need to be surface sown, so water the soil prior to sowing as evenly as you can manage.
  • Cover with glass and leave in an unheated greenhouse with a reasonable number of hours of sunlight a day, no fewer than 4-6 really. Aquilegia need daylight but not prolonged direct sunlight, so a second shelf in a green house is ideal.
  • Columbine / aquilegia take around 28 days to germinate. If you have no show after sowing in Winter it may be because you have yet to have a real frost. So just hold back and wait a little longer.
  • Once your aquilegia seedlings have emerged you can start to give them more sunlight hours and get them used to outdoors. There are troubles with leaving them indoors with the strength of the stem. Some commercial growers use fans to simulate wind to help the seedlings strengthen this way. I would recommend acclimatizing them to outdoors as soon as possible to avoid leggy issues.
  • Thin out your weaker columbine seedlings and move the stronger ones on to larger pots or if the are from Spring / Summer sowing plant them directly out to where you want them to grow.

Where To Plant Aquilegia

Really and truly they will grow anywhere but generally speaking a soil with adequate drainage is perfect for your aquilegia. Columbine will sow freely in your garden and you may be surprised with the ease at which it will take hold of an old stone wall or a crack in a patio. Plenty of sunlight is also a bonus and will speed up the flowering period.

Aquilegia ‘Red Dream’ (Granny’s Bonnet)

Most aquilegia grow to be around 60-70cm in height so they are ideal as a mid border plant, or one to blend in to a wildflower patch. They are a great source of food for early bees and will serve you well to fill a border spot as they also love partial shade.

How To Care For Your Columbine (Aquilegia)

This is so easy! I love a flowering border and our wildflower beds, but usually even the most natural looking flower display needs work throughout the season. Not so with columbine.

You can choose when to sow and therefore when to plant out, mainly between April and November. This is a large window of opportunity and you will find flowering occur in the second year if you wait until Spring to plant out, but generally speaking you will still have year round foliage to enjoy.

Aquilegia Vulgaris William Guinness.

After the flowers have died off you can cut back your foliage. This will deter many pests from taking a hold over Winter. It will also mean that your columbine is not putting out more energy into maintaining a year round display of foliage.

Once you have trimmed back the older foliage it will be replaced in the Spring with a flourish of new growth. Over the Winter is a good opportunity to weed around the aquilegia and remove any new plants that you may not want. It can be competitive when self-sowing but you do not want new plants to overcrowd your older ones. Provide your plants with a mulch. As much to keep them warmer and reduce the need for weeding as to feed the plants.

Columbine does not require much in way of feeding and there is little to worry about apart from the usual pests.

Dead Heading Columbine / Aquilegia

Dead heading of aquilegia is a good idea if you want to deter self-sowing. We think it is a great way to keep this Native plant from taking over your garden. The issues with columbine self-sowing is mainly that the resulting plants are not true versions of their parents. Meaning a few interesting colors and new heights, but also you can’t get the look you may have wanted to achieve.

Dead head before the seed heads have really started to change color from white to black/brown. This way you can harvest the aquilegia seeds without them escaping through the dried out seed pods.

If you would like them to grow from plants and just see how they end up, take the seed heads as they are darkening and leave upside down with a brown paper bag over their heads. In a few weeks you will have a bag filled with small black seeds, the size of poppy seeds. You can then take to a new part of the garden and scatter directly. No need to cover over, maybe just protect from birds eating them with a cloche or cover though.

Pests & Diseases To Look Out For With Columbine

The first thing to say is that aquilegia are seldom prone to any of these pests, and if they are it is of little consequence. You will find that your native species are far less susceptible. That is to say, hybrids need a little bit of extra care. However unless the infestation is particularly bad you will learn to accept these little imperfections.

  • Columbine Leafminer has an interesting life cycle. Known in North America as tiny black flies when adults. It is the early stages that are of interest to the gardener. – The female lays single eggs on the leaves of your aquilegia. They then hatch as maggots (larvae) that will feed on the leaves from the inside! They have to burrow inwards. Certain species do this and it looks like black spots, some you get meandering white tunnels where the larvae have sucked the leaf of its liquids. As the larvae get bigger, so too do the tunnels they create. Eventually maturing the leafminer emerges from the leaf and pupates on the underside of each leaf. There can be multiple eggs laid on each leaf, therefore multiple pupae too. A few weeks pass and a new generation of adults emerge ready to breed and lay eggs on your leaves. This can happen anything up to 3 times a year. Starting when your columbine starts to flower and ending with the last adults emerging into cold weather. This then prompts them to burrow into the soil around your plant to wait the Winter out and return the next Spring. Whilst unsightly it has no real consequences in terms of flowering or lifespan of your columbine plant. Unless each leaf is infested you can pretty much leave it for natural predators to keep them under control. Alternatively you can remove affected leaves as you will struggle with chemical control until they emerge as adults. By which time the damage is done.
  • Columbine Sawfly are specific to our aquilegia and will not affect surrounding plants. This is important to note as a sawfly infestation can look pretty devastating, however columbine will put out new foliage very quickly and make a full recovery. The female lay their eggs on the leaves and the larvae that develops looks very much like a little green caterpillar with a black head. Working from the outer edge of the leaves the sawfly larvae will eat towards the center. Then move to the next leaf. They eat from the underside of the leaves. This makes them a pain to find by hand. However encouraging birds and even ground beetles into your garden will keep a natural balance. There is something to be said for hunting them down when you first notice the damaging effects, but this is time consuming. If you have had an infestation the previous year, start to look in early Spring. Keep on top of it and I would even advise deploying the kids or grandkids to help out! Going on a bug hunt can be fun.
growing columbine aquilegia
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What To Plant With Columbine (Aquilegia)

  • Alliums go well with columbine and you can either choose to match the heights or have your alliums popping up above a sea of columbine flowers. Choose stark contrasting colors or compatible purples and pinks. A sea of purple and blue nodding aquilegia with white balls of alliums poking through is reminiscent of an English Cottage Garden.
  • You could choose a dwarf columbine variety and plant in containers with chives to let go to flower as well. This will give a small garden the illusion of larger structure.
  • Echinacea goes very well with aquilegia as ground cover. It will mean you have two sets of perennials that can become an integral part of a Prairie style border. Both plants will attract bees and other beneficial pollinators to your garden. Again match the height of your columbine to the echinacea or choose to have the coneflowers poking up above a sea of color.
  • Hyssop is a lovely perennial herb, pushing forth spikes of delicate flowers in clusters. The dark shade of purple is contrasted well with the lighter pink of shy nodding columbine.
  • Poppies make a great seed to sow with columbine and you can choose a shorter variety to allow them to match heights. There is a lot to be said for a shocking California Poppy in bright fresh orange next to a purple of the aquilegia vulgaris. The look you will achieve will be very suitable for the edge of a meadow and both plants will self sow with great success.
  • Marsh Mallows work very well with aquilegia, as long as you have a shaded spot. You will love the tall flouncy flowers of the marsh mallow coming through the columbine gently moving in the breeze. It is an absolute wildlife haven in the making as well!

Where To Buy Columbine

In the UK it is possible to buy aquilegia from reputable online nurseries, like Suttons who sell as plants or a set of plugs available here.

Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Miss M.I. Huish’ Columbine Granny’s Bonnet

You will also have a lot of luck buying from online nurseries as seeds, sometimes you will find them via Amazon as they may not have their own online presence. There is no one best time of year for planting seeds, so have a look at some of our images for more inspiration!

Further Reading

Thank you for taking the time to read our article, I hope to have conveyed at least some of the love and passion I have for this little plant. Beloved by wildlife and a great addition to any garden, columbine should be considered by so many as the perfect fit for your garden.

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