Red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a beautiful and unique native plant. Delicate red and yellow flowers resemble tiny ballerinas as they dance on slender red stems over finely divided blue-green leaves in late spring to early summer. Its lovely floral display, ease of growing, and overall charm, make red columbine a great plant for the home garden.
This native columbine has flowers with red outer petals that surround yellow petals, from which protrude yellow pistils and stamens, like jewels on a necklace. The petals elongate backward to tubes, known as spurs, which contain sweet nectar. In the wild, red columbine is found in rocky woods, slopes, limestone outcroppings, ledges, or gravelly shorelines tolerating the salt spray and harsh conditions of the sea. Its native range is throughout the eastern United States and southeastern provinces of Canada, reaching a height of 2 to 3 feet. After a heavy late spring bloom, it sets seed in mid-summer and becomes semi-dormant with leaves turning shades of purple and pink before disappearing. Other leaves may maintain their color into fall.
Hummingbirds, a main pollinator for red columbine, must submerge their heads into the upside-down flower to extract the nectar. In addition to hummingbirds, red columbine is pollinated by bumblebees and long-tongued insects. Insects that lack long tongues cut a hole in the spurs, helping themselves to the bounty. If you look closely, you can often see tiny holes along the flower top. Columbine leaves are host plants for many insect larvae, including those of the Columbine Duskywing Butterfly (Erynnis lucilius), which will defoliate the plant but not touch the flower or harm the plant. The Columbine Leafminer is a regular late season visitor to my plants, creating wandering paths over the leaves. I console myself by remembering that this insect is someone else’s food!
In the home garden, red columbine makes a great accent plant, adding movement and color to the part sun/part shade garden. It does not tolerate root competition from other plants and frequently doesn’t unpack its bags and stay in one place. As a short-lived perennial, it prefers to self-sow its abundant seeds and pop up in patches of bare soil – between rocks or nestled in a rock wall, where I was delighted to find it in my yard. Plant or sow columbine seeds in areas where you are waiting for other plants to fill in and it will prove a good competitor for weeds. Red columbine tolerates a variety of conditions. It prefers part shade and soil that is moist in spring and dries out in summer, but will tolerate full sun to full shade, varied degrees of moisture, and sandy, rocky, and fertile soils. Combine red columbine with northeastern beardtongue and spotted cranesbill in the part shade garden for a lovely early summer display.
Columbine flowers are edible, but please restrict snacking to the plants in your own garden. For a sweet treat, hold the flower over your tongue and squeeze the flower to extract the nectar. Flowers can also be used as a garnish in salad. Other plant parts, including stems and roots, contain toxins and should not be eaten.
Red columbine is easily grown from seed. To grow your own, scatter seeds in bare areas of your garden or plant seeds in a pot outdoors in the fall or winter. To learn more about growing and sowing the seeds of native wildflowers, read How to Grow Natives From Seed. Seeds can be purchased from our shop.
By Ginger Laurits
Ginger Laurits is a Wild Seed Project board member and a master gardener who tends the native garden at the Wells Reserve.