Why we love easy-going aquilegias

Neil Ross Neil Ross Neil Ross Neil Ross Neil Ross Neil Ross Neil Ross Neil Ross Neil Ross

Aquilegia vulgaris ‘McKana Giant’: Long-spurred hybrids are the big bicoloured types many gardeners fall in love with, whether it’s pinks, purples, red or blue combined with the arresting white corolla in the middle. The problem is that these delicate beauties can be short-lived and don’t always come true from seed, so the purity of the original plant isn’t passed on. If you happen to have one, cherish it. (Garden Post, Mr Fothergill’s)

Aquilegia viridiflora ‘Chocolate Soldier’: Remember those chocolate and lime boiled sweets from your childhood? With its pistachio-tinted outer sepals and coffee-coloured corolla, ‘Chocolate Soldier’ has been sought-after since it was bred in 1902. But this variety has one more trick up its sleeve – the flowers also smell sweet. ‘Chocolate Soldier’ grows up to 30cm high and is better in rich, free-draining soil. (Kings Seeds)

Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Petticoat Delights’: This is one of the more recent hybrid blends in the ‘rose flowered’ tradition, where the sepals are cupped and double and the flowers spurless to give a neat, balled effect. The seed mix includes pinks, whites and blues. Plants have been bred to be shorter than normal at about 20cm with upward-facing flowers that fully show off the intricate markings. (Kings Seeds)

Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Ruby Port’: This bears generous sprays of fully double spurless flowers of a good, even burgundy. Columbines are mostly perceived as cottage garden flowers, but this plant’s colour and form work well in contemporary planting, perhaps with bright orange geums and bronzy native grasses such as gossamer grass (Anemanthele lessoniana). (Koanga)

Aquilegia vulgaris: This is the common species found in European meadows and woodland edges. The nodding flowers have short spurs only and, as it belongs to the buttercup family, all parts of the plant are poisonous. This aquilegia and all its cultivars are very easy to grow from seed, which can be dried and stored or sown fresh. Even while they are still green the seeds will often germinate. (Yates)

Aquilegia chrysantha: Two great yellow columbines hail from the rocky canyons of Texas and Mexico. Aquilegia chrysantha is a lovely yellow which flowers later in spring than most and also has an unusually long flowering period. (Kings Seeds). Sister species Aquilegia longissima boasts the longest spurs of any species, reaching 15cm. It is sold through Seaflowers Nursery in Coromandel (seaflowers@xtra.co.nz).

Aquilegia vulgaris ‘William Guinness’: Sometimes also called ‘Magpie’, this is normally single-bloomed but here a flower has gone double. The perfect choice for crisp little Art Deco gardens, the slinky black and white colouring looks good beside frothy purple cow parsley Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’. Keep the backdrop plain and green, otherwise you could miss those subtle flowers. (Kings Seeds, Niche Seeds)

Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Nora Barlow’: This is a frilly crowd pleaser and one of the so-called rose or clematis flowered aquilegias, where the sepals are doubled and the outer ones have an attractive green tinge. Nora Barlow was a granddaughter of Darwin and this plant – popular for more than 300 years – was found growing in her garden by the nurseryman Allan Bloom. (Kings Seeds)

Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Blue Barlow’: Another in the ‘Barlow’ range with spurless double flowers. Other doubles can sometimes be found, ranging in colour from black to pure white. Aquilegias such as this work well planted close to spring bulbs, because as the foliage of the bulbs fades and begins to look unattractive, the aquilegia foliage is expanding and covers up the strappy mess.

1  of  9
« Previous « Previous Next » Next »

My mum was always in denial when I became a vegetarian. The good intentions only lasted while I was a student at university, but during that time whenever I returned home she could often be found at meals furtively concealing sausages under my mashed potato, worried that with just greens on the plate I might waste away. 

I think botanists of old must have been raging carnivores too; unable to enjoy a flower for itself, they had to imagine it looked like an animal and name it accordingly. Just think of the cranesbills and wolfbanes and sheep's scabious they dreamt up – it sounds more like a barbecue than a flower arrangement. 

This month's flower has also been given zoological pretensions, for behind the flowers each of the five petals has a conspicuous spur, which conspiratorially hooks over into a little scrum. Some boffins imagined the shape to resemble a flock of doves sipping at a bowl of water and so coined the name columbine, meaning dove in Latin. Others, meanwhile, thought the shape resembled another bird – this time the hooked talons of an aquilegia, the Latin for eagle. 

Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Nora Barlow’ - frilly crowd-pleaser.
Neil Ross

Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Nora Barlow’ - frilly crowd-pleaser.

In Victorian times they moved on from animals to fashion, believing that the more ruffled forms of these northern hemisphere perennials look like Granny's bonnet – and that name has stuck too, so take your pick. But whatever you call them, no self-respecting cottage garden in spring is complete without a liberal smattering of these lovely, nodding flowers.  

Most species, whether from Europe or North America, like the same sort of cool, woodland-edge conditions. This means some sun for part of the day and an average soil that doesn't get too wet in winter. On clay – or on any soil, for that matter – digging in organic matter will provide a better start. A little watering too will help to keep the leaves fresh in dry summers.

Other than that, most aquilegias are no-fuss plants – just a tidy up after flowering and they will dibble themselves into nooks and crannies in the garden. And, because they have a compact root system, they tend not to take up too much room. I just keep them to the backs of borders or to wilder areas on banks and under trees where they won't be noticed after they have done their spring dash.

Most of the varieties about tend to come from the common European species Aquilegia vulgaris, which has only small spurs behind the flowers. Their promiscuous tendencies and self- seeding habit mean that if you mix up your colours, all sorts of different shades pop up. I find that eventually I get left with rather too many murky pinks and blues, and not the crisp colours of named varieties bought at the start.

One answer is to keep your colours separate. A drift of deep blue shades rippling among golden primroses and dorinicums is far more arresting than a liquorice-allsorts muddle. Similarly I keep my more refined long-spurred hybrids away from the cheap-and-cheerful, shorter-spurred vulgaris varieties so that inferior seedlings don't creep in and spoil the drama. 

Over the years, breeders have been busy creating all sorts of mixes. Aquilegias bridge the gap between spring bulbs and summer perennials. Normally they can reach about 40cm in height but rarely need staking. From alpine species, however, breeders have introduced a dwarfing habit to some cultivars and from other species they have bred flowers that do not droop but show off their bicoloured interiors.

Leaves have been altered too: there are golden-leaved and variegated forms available, but nurseries tend not to offer a wide range so you will have to go out in early summer and look out for interesting forms in neighbours' gardens.

Ad Feedback

Though undoubtedly charming, it's worth remembering that these plants don't flower for very long – about two weeks and then that's it – so it's not worth letting them seed about too madly taking up every bit of bare ground. A good habit to adopt is to be ruthless and cut the plants to the ground – leaves and all – as soon as the flowers fade.

As well as tidying up the garden and stopping too much seeding, this causes the plants to produce a fresh crop of that lovely, maidenhair fern-like foliage. This is less prone to the mildew and leaf miners, which can blight the plants if you leave on the  original flush of leaves.  

Columbines have been essential garden plants for hundreds of years – reliable and none too fussy, they make good flowers for picking and are a great food source for bees and insects. Often we are told not to buy double flowers for feeding wildlife but here the nectar is still easily available as the petals are relatively short. 

For more like this, subscribe to NZ Gardener at mags4gifts.co.nz

Head to our Facebook page for more from Stuff Life & Style

 - NZ Gardener

Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback