Columbines take flight

Columbines suggest the flight of butterflies or birds. — susanhuntphotography/Flickr

Columbines suggest the flight of butterflies or birds. — susanhuntphotography/Flickr

After the daffodils have bloomed and forsythia has cast its sunny yellow flowers to the wind, what keeps your garden looking beautiful until those flats of cheery annuals go in the ground?

Consider the columbine, one of spring’s earliest perennials, for that lull between bulb flowers and the main events of the garden year. Bobbing and fluttering at the tops of wiry stems, columbines have been compared to butterflies or shooting stars.

Poet Elaine Goodale praised the “gypsy beauty, full and fine” of crimson columbines found growing wild at the forest’s edge. Whether in shades of red, gold, purple or blue, or with flowers that combine two contrasting colors, the columbines are uncommonly elegant — and easy to grow.

This is one of those flowers that came in from the wild. While there is only one native species common in the East, the southwest quadrant of the country from Texas to California and north to Wyoming is rich in colombines, many of which will thrive in our gardens, blooming between late April and early June.

While the native species are popular, don’t get the idea that hybridizers haven’t tinkered with the genus, crossing as many as seven species to produce named cultivars with bigger and (sometimes) brighter flowers. But rather than a single, named cultivar, you will more commonly find a hybrid “series” — the Songbird series, or the Music series, or the McKana Giants, for instance.

The variability of individual flowers is part of the columbine’s wayward charm, and the reason for it lies in the shocking sex life of these sweet and delicate flowers. The columbine is a promiscuous thing, freely cross-breeding with any fellow species that may be conveniently near and blooming at the same time. Wild colonies are often isolated, but in the garden, where proximity is enabling, natural pollinators are busily making random crosses with unpredictable results.

So, while you might initially choose a few particular species, or certain hybrid cultivars of this free-wheeling plant, prepare to be occasionally surprised. Pleasantly, we hope. Accidental surprises of the columbine kind make growing them a little different from raising a plant that remains stolidly the same through several generations.

Native Eastern columbine. — James St. John/Flickr

Native Eastern columbine. — James St. John/Flickr

There are at least 80 species of columbine distributed in temperate climates of the world — but not everyone agrees on what to call them or how to classify them. The fine points of taxonomy matter more to botanists than the average gardener, but the nomenclature is quite hectic when it comes to columbines and their relatives.

Sources don’t even agree on the origin of the Latin genus name for this plant, Aquilegia, which might (or might not) refer to eagles. The common name, columbine, is based on the Latin for dove and on someone’s fancy that the flowers resemble a gathering of doves.

Really, the only bird that has serious business with the columbine is the hummingbird, an important pollinator of these flowers. The eastern species, Aquilegia canadensis, and the widely distributed western species, Aquilegia formosa, both attractive to hummingbirds, look remarkably alike with their dangling red-and-yellow flowers.

While individual plants are short-lived, surviving for perhaps three or four years, a stand of columbines can re-seed itself for a long, long time. You can sow seeds outdoors in fall or mid-winter, sprinkling them in partly shady areas. Seed-grown plants will produce flowers in their second season

You also can buy plants, of course. Once these bloom, allow the seeds to mature and either let them spread naturally or collect them for sowing in other locations. The shiny black seeds are borne in capsules that turn brown and then split when the seeds are mature.

Columbines flower well in the dappled shade under high-branched trees, or where they get some direct morning or afternoon sun, but are shaded during the hottest part of the day. Many columbines, especially the smaller kinds, make ideal rock garden subjects.

PLANT SOURCES

Park Seed Company, 1 Parkton Ave., Greenwood, S.C. 29647. Call (800) 845-3369 or visit www.parkseed.com. Seeds and plants.

Select Seeds, 180 Stickney Hill Road, Union, Conn. 06076. Call (800) 684-0395 or punch up www.selectseeds.com.

W. Atlee Burpee & Co., 300 Park Ave., Warminster, Pa. 18991. Call (800) 888-1447 or visit www.burpee.com. Plants and seeds.

Bluestone Perennials, 7211 Middle Ridge Road, Madison, Ohio, 44057. Call (800) 852-5243 or see www.bluestoneperennials.com. Plants.

Toadshade Wildflower Farm, 53 Everittstown Road, Frenchtown, N.J. 08825. Call (908) 996-7500 or see www.toadshade.com. Native columbines.