Another Favorite Wildflower: Columbine

Columbine with Rhododendron ‘Pastel #19’

They look great together, don’t they? This native Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) has been blooming for several weeks; its long blooming period is just one of the reasons I love this wildflower.  It’s only been in the last few days since Rhododendron ‘Pastel #19’ began blooming heavily that the two adjacent plants have begun to strikingly complement each other in my landscape.

Columbines naturally occur on rocky slopes and ledges and occasionally cool, open-sloped meadows throughout the Piedmont (and the mountains). Plants flourish when roots are settled into well-drained soil. On rocky ledges, the plants stay relatively small, using most of their energy to send their tap root anchors deep into rocky crevices.

In my well-drained sloping beds, the plants are shaded from afternoon sun, so they grow taller — about 2 feet.  Red and yellow Columbine flowers possess nectar-bearing spurs that project backward from the petals. Our native Ruby-Throated Hummingbird’s long tongue is adapted to tap this nectar supply — one of this bird’s earliest reliable food supplies when it first arrives here for summer nesting season.

See the green fruit in the upper left corner? Botanically speaking, the five connected parts are called follicles, and when they ripen from green to brown, they split open to release gazillions of tiny black seeds. In my garden, Columbine self-sows freely. Young plants are easy to identify and relocate. My policy on Columbines in the garden: the more the merrier.

I think the delicate compound foliage is pretty even when the plant isn’t blooming. Here’s a shot from a week ago that shows you the same plant so that you can appreciate the foliage:

Earlier Columbine Blossoms

Some gardeners become alarmed by leaf miner damage to the leaves, which does occur with some frequency. Leaf miners leave little wiggly trails through the leaves (they drill on the inside, so the leaves remain intact). In my garden, I’ve never seen leaf miners do irreparable harm to a Columbine, but I suppose it is theoretically possible. Systemic poisons (the kind that must be absorbed by the plant’s roots) are the only way I know of to eradicate leaf miners, and I’m not about to mess with those.

A European species of Columbine has been hybridized by horticulturalists; many large-flowered and different-colored plants can be found in nurseries. In my informal woodland garden, such plants would look silly — too big, too bright — overpowering, really. And inappropriate somehow — like wearing a tuxedo to a cookout.

To my eye, the delicate native species is a much better fit in a semi-shaded bed of mixed wildflowers. They make my landscape feel more complete — more like home.

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