How to grow: aquilegia

The genus aquilegia is widespread in the northern hemisphere: Europe and Asia, as well as America, have their own columbines. Many of the North American species are short-lived, but they can be grown easily from seed.

Aquilegia ‘Columbine’ Picture: Alamy
Most species come true from seed if they are isolated from others, but the whole family has a reputation for promiscuity – incest, even. In gardens where the native Aquilegia vulgaris dominates, forms of varying colour and shape can occur. It is these self-made hybrids that have inspired the epithet “grannies’ bonnets”.

One of the oldest of these forms is A. vulgaris var stellata ‘Nora Barlow’, named after Charles Darwin’s grand-daughter, but recorded much earlier – in the 17th century, in fact, as the “Rose Columbine”. Its thickly clustered petals are soft pink, green and white.

•Sweet columbine

The most simple and graceful of A. vulgaris hybrids have A. alpina as their other parent. Predominantly deep blue but occasionally pink, white or various shades of purple, these have come to be known by the name ‘Hensol Harebell’. They have full, comely flowers, stately deportment, and a strong constitution.

Aquilegia ‘Tequila Sunrise’ Picture: Features Scan

A. alpina is, as the name suggests, from the Alps, where it grows in shady woodland margins and among rocks. Found in the same region, but growing in meadows rather than higher up the slopes, is an aquilegia with almost black flowers, A. atrata. This is probably one of the parents used to create the fashionable “black-and-white” hybrids, two of which, A. vulgaris ‘Magpie’ and A. vulgaris ‘William Guiness’, are widely available as seed strains.

From further east, in the Himalayan foothills of Pakistan, northern India and Kashmir comes A. fragrans, one of the commonest columbines. Its pallid, creamy flowers, sometimes washed in pale blue, have a delicious pineapple-like scent. This variety lasts only two or three years in the garden and seed from cultivated plants is often contaminated after cross-pollination with other columbines. The resultant plants often lose the fabulous scent but, thankfully, plant explorers and botanists fairly frequently re-introduce unadulterated seed collected from the wild.

Aquilegia Vulgaris Picture: Andrew Crowley

Only a few Far Eastern aquilegias are in general cultivation. A. viridiflora is a small, dainty plant, with numerous nodding flowers of chocolate-brown and mossy green. It is best grown in an elevated position, such as a raised bed, where its delicious perfume and subtle demeanour can be enjoyed at close quarters.

In Japan, A. flabellata and its numerous hybrids have long been cultivated, although the species is unknown in the wild. Hybrids like A. flabellata ‘Ministar’ and A. flabellata ‘Nana Alba’ are consistently popular among alpine enthusiasts. Its small, stocky plants are loaded with flowers, making up for its lack of grace.

Growing tips

Aquilegias lend themselves to cottagey or semi-wild settings. Most relish dappled shade. They love deep, rich soil. Most garden varieties do not resent clay, but alpine types prefer well-drained loam. When planting, work in extra humus: old muck or garden compost is best. Mulch with the same material.

Remove seed heads before they disperse their contents, otherwise the parent plant may be crowded out by its own offspring. Save the seed and sow it fresh if you want more plants elsewhere.

Good companions

Try A. longissima contrasted against the darkly dramatic foliage of Cimicifuga simplex var. simplex Atropurpurea Group or in combination with pale-lemon buttercups and golden grasses. Plant blue A. alpina as it grows in the wild, with Geranium sylvaticum and trollius. A. formosa and A. canadensis, both of which are soft red and yellow, look at home with Primula cockburniana, a small asiatic primula with vermilion flowers.

Buy Aquilegia vulgaris from the Telegraph Gardenshop.

Aquilegia is a hardy perennial known as Columbine.

Aquilegia vulgaris
Family: Ranunculaceae


Season & Zone
Exposure: Partial shade – full sun is tolerated where summers are cool
Zone: 3-9

Direct sow in autumn or mid-winter. Seeds can be started indoors, but it’s more complicated: Sow seeds in flats of moistened, sterilized seed starting mix, and place these inside plastic bags in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks. Then sink the flats outdoors in the ground in a shady spot, and cover with glass. As seedlings appear, transplant them or pot them on. Germination takes 30-90 days.

Sow on the soil surface and transplant or thin seedlings to 30-50cm (12-20″) apart.

Seedlings are easy to move, but delicate. Keep them out of strong sunlight, and water frequently, but gently. Deadhead regularly to prolong the blooming period. Columbine’s flowers are followed by distinctive seed pods that open on their own when seeds are ripe. These can be removed to prevent self sowing, or for very easy harvest of the seeds. We like to harvest Columbine seeds mid-summer and spread them in any shady spot that could use some colour.

Grow Columbine in humus-rich, moist, but well-drained soil.

Caring for a Columbine Flower

The columbine flower is a popular evergreen perennial that blooms in various attractive shades of white, yellow, pink, purple, blue and violet. These are an ideal choice for flower beds, rock gardens and borders. Columbines are some of the easiest flowers to grow and maintain. You can propagate from direct seeding in your flower garden. They thrive in fertile, well-drained soils. The best site to plant is one that receives morning sun and has afternoon shade. It is best to sow seeds in the spring and cover lightly with soil. Leave enough space in between plant rows because columbines grow in clusters with multiple stems. The guide below gives simple care instructions.


Give your columbines adequate water, particularly during the early growing phase. This will encourage healthy growth and proper establishment of the deep tap root system. Regular watering is also helpful as it checks aphid infestation and attacks of powdery mildew. Maintain moist soils for your columbines at all times. Give water twice a week but less if you receive reliable rainfall. Hot summer days, periods of drought or when rainfall is scarce will necessitate frequent watering. Be careful not to give excessive water as it will reduce the life span of your columbines.


When planting, it is best to add some organic manure or compost into the soil to help boost nutrient content. Thereafter, you should apply fertilizer twice each spring, summer and fall. You need not fertilize in the winter as the plants tend to be dormant. Maintain fertilizer application once the plants are established. This will help ensure abundant stemming and prolific growth of foliage. An all-purpose plant food works best for columbine flowers.


Mulch your columbine plants in the spring through the fall. You need not mulch in the winter as the plants are fairly hardy. Use an organic mulch to help add to the soil nutrients. Mulch will also help to conserve soil moisture, making watering less of a routine practice. Straw, chopped leaves or shredded bark make good mulch. Spread 2 to 3 inches around the plants. Do not pack close to the stems as it will encourage fungal infections. Rodents may also be attracted to nestle in the mulch and feed on the stems. Leave about 4 inches of space around the stems to encourage good air circulation.


Prune your columbines in the spring or late fall. Trim early in the spring before the plants come out of winter dormancy. Otherwise, prune late in the fall after the first frost. The plant has several tall stems that branch off from the base. Cut back stems that have fading flowers. Or simply pinch off flowers with your fingers. Pluck off leaves that are turning yellow, especially as winter approaches. Columbines are frequently attacked by leaf miners. Prune any foliage that shows signs of infestation. Dispose of infected leaves by burning to help check the spread.

Scientific Name

Aquilegia vulgaris L.

Common Names

Columbine, European Columbine, European Crowfoot, Common Columbine, Granny’s Nightcap, Granny’s Bonnet, Granny Bonnets, Capon’s Feather


Aquilegia aggericola, Aquilegia collina, Aquilegia dumeticola, Aquilegia inversa, Aquilegia stellata, Aquilegia winterbottomiana

Scientific Classification

Family: Ranunculaceae
Subfamily: Isopyroideae
Tribe: Isopyreae
Subtribe: Isopyrinae
Genus: Aquilegia


Color: Blue (sometimes purple, pink, light red and white)
Bloom Time: Summer


Aquilegia vulgaris is a flowering herbaceous perennial plant, up to 4 feet (1.2 m) tall, with branched, thinly hairy stems. The leaves are pinnate, with the basal leaflets themselves trifoliate. The flowers are blue (sometimes purple, pink, light red and white), up to 2 inches (5 cm) wide, pendent or horizontal with hooked spurs, and appear in early Summer.

How to Grow and Care

Columbine plants can handle full sun. It’s the combination of heat and dry soil they don’t like and mulching will help alleviate that. They will self-sow, but new plants can be lost if the summer gets too hot. Also, plants tend to be short-lived, fading out within 3 years. Hedge your bets and save some seed to sow in the fall or falling spring. Keep in mind that Columbine varieties readily cross-pollinate. If you plant more than one variety, be prepared to see new colors and combinations. If self-sowing becomes a nuisance, shear the plants back in mid-summer, to prevent seed pods from forming.

You can start Columbine from seed or plant. Seeds can be direct sown throughout spring. The seeds need light to germinate, so simply press them on the soil surface and barely cover with soil. Since Columbine is a perennial, it will take 2 years from planting the seed, for them to bloom… – See more at: How to Grow and Care for Columbine.


Native to Europe.


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Double-flowered European Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris plena)

Hardy, spring-flowering perennial
Description: Showy, distinctly spurred, double blossoms ranging in color from deep purple and blue to pink and white
Habit: Grows 18 to 24 inches high and 18 inches wide
Culture: Prefers partial shade and rich, well-drained garden loam
Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 through 8
Origin: Europe
Attributes: Deer and Rabbit Resistant
Jefferson documented
European columbines have been grown in British gardens since at least the 14th century, and Gerard’s 1597 description of the double variety still applies: “The flowers hereof be very double, that is to say, many of those little flowers (having the form of birds) are thrust one into the belly of another, some-times blew, often white and otherwhiles of mixt colours”. Both single and double forms were grown in America before 1700, and it is likely that Thomas Jefferson had both types since he included “Columbines” in an undated list of cultivated flowers. Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard McMahon listed “Double Columbines, of colours” in his 1804 broadsheet.

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