This type of columbine is a beginner’s wildflower. It won’t grow 10 feet tall, it won’t turn rangy and ragged, and it won’t disappear on you. The delicate ferny leaves form pretty clumps topped by dangling bell-like red and yellow blooms in spring. After the flowers disappear, the bright green foliage remains. The thin, scalloped leaves rustle in the lightest summer breeze. Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), also called Canada columbine, is both tough and tolerant. It adapts to a wide variety of soil and light conditions, and it can survive on sparse rainfall for months. So if you want to experiment with native plants in your yard, start with columbine. It won’t do you wrong.
Common name: Columbine, Canada columbine, wild columbine
Botanical name: Aquilegia canadensis
Plant type: Perennial
Zones: 3 to 8
Height: 1 to 3 feet
• Sun: Full sun to part shade
• Soil: Average, well-drained
• Moisture: Average
• Mulch: Mulch to preserve moisture in the soil.
• Pruning: None needed.
• Fertilizer: None needed.
• By seed; columbine self-seeds prolifically.
Pests and diseases
• Vulnerable to powdery mildew, rust, and fungal leaf spots.
• Caterpillars, leaf miners, and aphids can be problems.
• The flowers of A. canadensis are red and yellow, but they aren’t garish. They make pleasant neighbors for plants with white, pink, and purple blossoms. Use this plant in woodland gardens, around a water feature, or in a perennial border.
• A. canadensis is very adaptable. Plant it in a sun-drenched meadow or a shade bed where little else will grow. It can thrive in full sun, nearly full shade, and anywhere in between.
• Use A. canadensis as your starting point for a collection of native flowers. If it’s in the shade, add ferns, Jacob’s ladder, wild geranium, and rue anemone. If it’s in the sun, add prairie smoke, pussytoes, harebells, and nodding wild onion. Expand as your space allows.
• Under the right conditions, A. canadensis will self-sow. It’s not considered aggressive, but it will provide you plenty of little sprouts with which to populate your garden.
• Hummingbirds like A. canadensis flowers.
• ‘Corbett’ has pale yellow flowers.
• ‘Little Lantern’ is a compact form that grows only 8 to 10 inches tall.
All in the family
• Other columbines native to North America include Rocky Mountain columbine (A. caerulea), with blue and white flowers; yellow columbine (A. chrysantha), found in the southern United States and Mexico; and A. formosa, with orange and yellow blossoms.
• Some European columbines and their cultivars are very popular in gardens. A. vulgaris has yielded many common cultivars, notably ‘Nora Barlow’, which has double pink flowers.
• A. fragrans is a small species from the Himalayas with fragrant, creamy white blossoms.
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo of Aquilegia canadensis courtesy of the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden.)