Aquilegia: expert tips for buying, sowing & care

Sarah
Sarah
Sarah
Sarah

For me plants are some of the most exciting living beings, even though they live in slow motion. They have fascinating abilities and just so much potential! That's why I studied organic farming. However, since plants are rather thin on the ground in my city, I often spend time hiking in the nearby mountains at the weekend. In the future I would love to run a farm myself.

Favourite fruit: strawberries and gooseberries
Favourite vegetable: courgettes

This flower with an unusual flower shape comes in many varieties. Here, you will find the most important information about sowing and caring for aquilegias.

Orange pink flower of the columbine
The easy-care columbine comes in different colours [Photo: Agnieszka Bacal/ Shutterstock.com]

Aquilegia, also know as columbine or granny’s bonnet, is a very special type of perennial. With its extravagant flowers in strong purple to a delicate pink, it transforms many a garden into a sea of flowers and is also particularly easy to care for.

Columbines were planted in European gardens as early as the late Middle Ages, so the plant has become an integral part of many monasteries and country gardens. But the aquilegia has also found its way into many ornamental gardens – and rightly so.

Aquilegia: origin and characteristics

Although aquilegia flowers look rather complicated with their spurs, the plant belongs to a family of simple plants. It is a very old flowering plant and even though you probably know it primarily from the garden, columbines even exist in the wild here in the UK. The common columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) likes to colonise semi-shaded deciduous forests, forest edges and even mountain meadows. But the plants are not only native to Europe, they can also be found throughout the northern hemisphere. The differences in the flowers are exciting. While Eurasian columbines tend to have blue to purple flowers to attract bumblebees and honey bees, North American species attract hawkmoths and hummingbirds as pollinators with their white, yellow, and red hues. The flowering period of aquilegias is between May and July.

Columbine growin on the mountain side
Columbines colonise not only forests and forest edges in nature, but also mountain meadows [Photo: Hale Kell/ Shutterstock.com]

Aquilegia can be easily identified in both Asia and North America, as well as in Europe. While the flowers stand out for their spurs, the leaves are long-stalked and rosette-shaped. The three-part leaves are characteristically notched. The plants can reach an age of four to five years.

Aquilegia species and varieties

Due to their large spread over the entire northern hemisphere and many years of breeding, columbines have developed a wide range of species and varieties. There are said to be over 70 species now and even more varieties. The species are quite closely related and can be partially interbred, resulting in hybrids. As a result, classification of individual species is, of course, much more difficul. Eurasian and North American species, however, have now become more genetically distant from each other. Unfortunately cultivated forms in gardens also often hybridise with wild aquilegias, whereby wild forms in Europe have also already been modified.

A hummingbird feeding from a columbine
While columbines are pollinated by bumblebees in Europe, hummingbirds are also popular pollinators in North America [Photo: Brian Lasenby/ Shutterstock.com]

The following varieties of columbine are especially beautiful:

  • A. vulgaris ‘Wild form’: This aquilegia is not only called wild form, it really is one. It is the archetype of all varieties of Aquilegia vulgaris and blooms classically in pale pink to deep purple.
  • A. vulgaris ‘William Guiness’: This cultivar in deep bordeaux to purple colours is white only at the tips of the petals. The white colour makes an exciting contrast to the otherwise deep dark flower.
  • A. vulgaris ‘Nora Barlow’: The ‘Nora Barlow’ cultivar is characterised by its double flowers. The white flower tips stand out clearly against the pink flower. The name of the variety comes from its discoverer Nora Barlow.
  • A. caerulea ‘Jewel white’: This cultivar of the American aquilegia species Aquilegia cearulea shines in pure white.
  • A. caerulea ‘Blue Star’: This Aquilegia caerulea hybrid is distinguished by the white petals that stand out against the otherwise blue flower.
Purple flowers of the aquilegia vulgaris
Aquilegia vulgaris is a native wild form of columbine

Planting aquilegias

Planting aquilegias is in no way a heavy task. As with most plants, you should plant your columbine in the spring, so that it is sufficiently rooted over the summer. It can then survive the winter unscathed. When planting, you should dig a sufficiently deep hole, slightly loosen the root ball of the aquilegia to allow it to grow more easily, then put it in the hole. The rest of the hole is then refilled with soil. Now press the plant down a little to increase its stability. Do not forget to water – then you are all done.

Pink and white flowers of the columbine nora barlow
A double columbine with interesting colouring is the cultivar Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Nora Barlow’ [Photo: angelaflu/ Shutterstock.com]

The perfect location

Aquilegias grow mainly in sparse forests and forest edges. For this reason, they prefer a semi-shaded location. Sun generally harms them, however, not always, especially since some species also grow on meadows. Many American species in particular even prefer direct sunlight rather than shade. Forest soil is usually fresh and humus-rich, so it is well-suited to aquilegias. So, the planting site should offer good soil and not be too dry.

Sowing aquilegias

Once columbines are present in the garden, they are also quickly spread by their numerous seeds. Accordingly, their cultivation from seed is also uncomplicated. You can sow either in autumn or in early spring between February and May. The seeds of some species require a cold stimulus to germinate. Therefore, seeds of these species are better sown in autumn or in February.

You can sow the seeds directly into the ground in the garden, but sowing in a seed tray is safer. In this case, you can put the seeds in the refrigerator for a few days to encourage them to germinate. Either way, the seeds should be kept moist after sowing. To avoid washing away small seeds in the process, a water sprayer is useful for this purpose.

An array of columbine plants
Since propagation by seed is uncomplicated, you will quickly have a whole sea of columbine in your garden [Photo: Borodina Yuliya/ Shutterstock.com]

Aquilegia care

Aquilegias are also native to the UK. For this reason, they do not really need any care after planting and initial watering. In the right location, they can manage all by themselves, after all, they have to in the wild.

Watering

In the wild, columbines are most likely to occur on fresh sites such as forests and mountain meadows. Accordingly, most species of aquilegia require plenty of water. Normally, rainwater is sufficient, but especially dry summers may necessitate watering. Aquilegia plants growing on very sandy substrate or in a very dry location, also need water now and then, when it gets too dry.

Water droplet on the columbine leaf
The lotus effect is an adaptation to a lot of rain, which causes the water to bead up immediately [Photo: Erik Agar/ Shutterstock.com]

Pruning columbines

Aquilegias do not need pruning, they even thrive without it. So why the effort? After flowering, columbine produces an incredible amount of small seeds. If you like the plant but do not want it everywhere in the garden, you should remove fruiting stalks after flowering. Cut the stems of the ripening fruiting stalks at the base. But do not wait too long before pruning, because seed development can happen rapidly.

Fertilising aquilegias

As previously mentioned, fertilisation, in principle, is not necessary. A planted aquilegia does quite well with the nutrients present in the substrate. The situation is different for potted plants that require regular fertiliser. A fertiliser with a long-term effect such as our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food is ideal for this. This can also be applied to aquilegias growing in beds at the beginning of the growing season in spring, to give the plant the best start. Alternatively, compost or horse manure is also suitable for supportive fertilisation.

All Purpose Plant Food, 1.5kg
All Purpose Plant Food, 1.5kg
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  • Perfect for a variety of plants in the garden & on the balcony
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Are aquilegias poisonous?

In the Middle Ages, columbine was kept not only as an ornamental plant, its leaves were also used against fever. Plants used as medicinal plants usually contain substances that are beneficial in low doses, but toxic in high doses – including aquilegias. Their consumption can because several unpleasant symptoms, but they also quickly subside.

You can learn more about the ingredients of aquilegia and their effects here.

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