Why we love easy-going aquilegias
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.
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.
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.
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- NZ Gardener