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Easy, Charming Columbines

Columbines (Aquilegia x hybrida) are sometimes known as Granny’s Bonnets. Their charming flowers, and attractive foliage, are delightful. The popular hybrids originate from species originating in both North America and Europe. Columbines are perennial in cold climates, but are best treated as annuals in temperate climates.

The Columbine is an easy plant to grow because it adapts itself to a wide variety of conditions.

The Columbine is an easy plant to grow because it adapts itself to a wide variety of conditions.

Columbines belong to the family Ranunculaceae (buttercup family) that includes Aconitum, Cimicifuga, Clematis, Delphinium, Helleborus, Hydrastis, Pulsatilla, and Ranunculus. Spindly, variegated petals top tall, straight stems, and bushy green leaves grow at the base of the plant. Modern hybrids have long-spurred flowers in a wide colour range, which includes white, pink, crimson, yellow, blue and various purple combinations. Older species are short-spurred and more truly resemble an old-fashioned bonnet.

The Columbine is an easy plant to grow because it adapts itself to a wide variety of conditions. Columbines do best however, when they are grown in moist, rich, well-drained soil in light shade. These 30-90cm high plants generally begin blooming in the middle of spring and will often continue through summer if the weather is not overly hot and if the flowers are removed as they fade.

Columbines are a favourite flower for hummingbirds, and are excellent additions to the rock garden, or as a woodland planting. They tend to cross-pollinate, hybridise, and self seed freely, creating new strains and colours. However, the formation of seeds will shorten the productive lifespan of the plant, so it is best to remove the spent flowers promptly. If grown as perennials, Columbines tend to lose vitality after 3-4 years and are best replaced at that time.

It helps to do a little research on a particular species that you plan to grow, as some are adapted to alpine areas or meadows and need full sun, while others are woodland species that will grow splendidly in dappled shade. Alpine species do beautifully in rock gardens, where they benefit from a pebble mulch. Woodland species prefer bark mulch or shredded leaves, and look lovely among ferns and hostas.

In temperate areas seed may be sown directly in the garden in autumn. The seeds should be only very lightly covered, because they germinate faster in light. These seeds will produce flowering size plants in spring.

Columbines prefer well drained soil enriched with manure or compost before planting. The ideal soil type should be humus rich, well drained and with a pH of 5.5 to 7.0. These plants hate clay soils.


Purchase columbine plants at nurseries, or grow these beauties from seed — a variety pack of columbine seeds will no doubt surprise and delight you with the end product.

Propagate it from seed — this is one of the most prolific of flowers, producing large numbers of seeds and if you have two distinct species in your garden, it will not take long to have hybrids. Also, if you are growing Columbines as annuals you need to keep new ones coming along from seed. This presents a small problem with the hybrid varieties as the offspring is not guaranteed to come true from seed.

Use this to your advantage. Choose the plants you like and allow them to set seed. Pull out any you do not like and do not let them set seed. Eventually, you’ll wind up with some pretty good looking plants that are your very own.


The primary pest of columbines is the leaf miner. This larval insect tunnels inside of the leaf, leaving a winding trail. The larva eventually chews through the bottom of the leaf, drops to the soil below, pupates, and later emerges as a flying adult. Leaves bearing traces of leaf miners should be plucked from the plant and disposed of in the trash.


Traditional folk medicine has used the common Columbine as an astringent, depurative, diaphoretic, diuretic, narcotic, and parasiticide. It has been used to treat Inflammations of the pharynx and the throat; Liver (obstructions of openings, jaundice), spleen and gallbladder diseases; Diarrhoea; Stomach complaints; Kidney stones; Dropsy; Measles and small pox; Nervousness; Easily angered people (sedative qualities); Pain during childbirth; Uterine bleeding; Eye diseases; Rheumatic aches and pains; Head lice (repellant); Ulcers (used in a poultice); sores of mouth and throat.

Today all parts are considered toxic and therefore should not be eaten. External use should only take place under the guidance of a qualified healer.