Horticultural Highlight: Columbine
In this series, the staff of Duke Gardens highlights plants you’ll find within our 55-acre living collection. This week Jan Little, director of education and public programs, features a favorite plant with a long and colorful history.
Botanical name: Aquilegia canadensis
Common name: Columbine
Family name: Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family)
Plant type: Perennial
Native range: Eastern North America
Location in Duke Gardens: Blomquist Garden of Native Plants
Site requirements: Easily grown in average, moist, well-drained soil with some shade. Self-sows readily but is not a thug. Doesn’t take over.
USDA Hardiness Zones: 3-8
Amazing architecture, wonderful colors and fascinating history—all these make the native columbine one of my favorites.
This plant has delicate blue-green foliage that emerges stacked up like plates and growing into graceful, lacy compound leaves. The foliage is lovely throughout the growing season if moisture is sufficient.
The pale red and yellow flowers have five downward opening petals and dramatic spurs that curve up and back. The name Aquilegia comes from the Latin for eagle, referring to the talon-like appearance of the flower spurs. The specific epithet of canadensis simply indicates that it is native to northeastern North America.
This charming plant with its fanciful flowers inspired a number of uses, primarily as a love charm. Native American communities, including Meskawki, Ponca, Pawnee and Omaha, used columbine seeds as a love charm and to perfume linens. The Cherokee used columbine as a heart medicine and the Iroquois made a wash from it to ease poison ivy. Omaha Ponca called this plant Inubtho-kithe-sabe-hi, or black perfume plant. The Pawnee named it skalikatit, or black seed.
Modern science allows us to untangle a plant’s history through DNA analysis. With that information, we now know that the columbine originated in both Europe and Asia, with the Asian species migrating across the Bering land bridge during the glacial period 10,000 to 40,000 years ago. With time and separation, the plants responded to local habitats and pollinators, evolving into several distinct species across North America. Many developed slightly different flower structures to serve their primary pollinator.
Aquilegia canadensis is the only columbine east of the 100th meridian, and it matches the range of ruby-throated hummingbirds. Both its flower structure and the increased nectar sugar attract the ruby-throated hummingbird. Bumblebees, particularly in the northern reaches of the plant’s range, also pollinate the flowers.
Occasionally a leaf miner insect will lay eggs between leaf layers. The hatching insect eats its way around the leaf, creating a trail of damaged foliage. The best way to control leaf miner is to remove affected foliage and dispose of it.
Columbine develops seed pods filled with small black seeds that are easily distributed and germinate readily—so you can spread columbine easily throughout your garden!
Photos by Sue Lannon (columbine on top), Kathy Julian (middle) and Jason Holmes (leaf miner damage).