Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Columbine - Aquilegia canadensis

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is one of the most beloved of all wildflowers and widely planted throughout much of its natural range in North America - from southern Canada to nearly every state in the eastern half of the U.S. In Florida, however, it is exceedingly rare and occurs only in a few calcareous deciduous woodlands in and around Florida Caverns State Park in the central panhandle.  In areas where it occurs naturally, it can be quite common, but it has a very narrow range of ecological tolerances.  Foremost, it seems to need high pH, sandy woodland soils overlying limerock.  Secondly, it seems to require sun in very early spring, followed by dappled light the rest of the year.  Lastly, it seems to need some protection from the heat of summer.
Despite all of this, columbine can be grown in Florida landscapes quite successfully outside its natural range.  We have grown it in our Pinellas County landscape for a number of years, but we have taken a few precautions to give it conditions as near as possible to those found around Florida Caverns State Park.  We have sited it near the foundation of our house to give it a higher pH than the rest of our yard offers.  We grow it at the edge of our deciduous woodland garden and we make sure it gets a bit of extra moisture during periods of extreme drought. 
Columbine is a very short-lived perennial.  It should not be expected to live much past 2-3 years and will not persist in a landscape if it doesn't reproduce.  Thankfully, well grown individuals produce large numbers of tiny black seeds.  If you trust your site, you may wish to let some of them sow naturally.  I am not that trusting, so I collect the seed to sow in flats.  Seedlings emerge quickly after sowing and are usually easy to grow.
Blooming may not occur until the second year.  Columbine is deciduous and the entire plant disappears from late fall until late winter/early spring.  Growth is rapid and mature specimens reach a height of 2 1/2 to nearly 4 feet tall by blooming time - March through May.  The feathery foliage is one of its best features, looking a bit like a maidenhair fern.  The most attractive feature of this wildflower, however, is its flowers.  Large bright orange to reddish flowers with a contrasting yellow interior are produced singly on arching stalks over a period of many weeks.  They are distinctive in appearance, with 5 modified petals and upright "horns" which hold large quantities of nectar.  Columbines are favorite nectar sources of our ruby-throated humminbird, but also are pollinated by various long-tongued moths and a few bees and butterflies.
If you have a place for this species, you may well wish to give it a try.  It is propagated by a number of commercial sources.  Just realize that you will have to either keep propagating it yourself or purchase it again every 2-3 years to keep it present.


  1. Any experience on how these will do under a magnolia? Have a great spot for one next to a large lime rock boulder under a large M. grandiflora, but I am worried that the allelopathic properties of the tree may do it in.

    1. Columbine does best in limey soil and in areas where it gets sun in the late winter/early spring. It has some drought tolerance, but not for soils that stay dry for too long. Southern magnolias, being evergreen, are tough to plant under because they shade the ground year-round. Spring ephemerals, like columbine, need sun when they come up in the spring and up to about the time they bloom. I would not think your conditions would prove favorable for this plant, but try it - if it doesn't make it there, try it somewhere else. In our yard, because we have a block home, it does well near the foundation, in a somewhat moist spot where it gets some sun.

    2. Sunlight won't be an issue as it gets nice morning sun year round and then mixed shade/sun for the rest of the day. Everything seems like it should be right other than the fact that this magnolia (and others in the yard) seems to have a zone of death/decline around it for many of the species of plants that I have in my yard. I have also amended the soil to raise the PH as directed by the grower I bought it off of. I will let you know if it goes into decline like some of the other plants that were planted too close to the tree. Thanks!


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