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Portland Nursery

AQUILEGIA: Columbine

Though there are many columbines available to the northwest gardener, the NW natives are among the most beautiful. Somewhat short-lived but actively self-seeding perennials, these graceful, nodding flowers rise high above clumps of delicately lobed leaves and are a beacon of attraction to hummingbirds, with a long bloom-time from late spring through summer.

They grow to a somehow-surprising height of up to three feet; upright spurs above, and petticoats of stamens and styles beneath dance in the breezes of the garden. They are sometimes prey to aphids, and especially leaf miners that make fairly unattractive roadmap-looking lines in the leaves; cutting the plants to the ground after bloom removes the host for these pests, and the second flush of growth is usually pest-free.

Aquilegia are extremely adaptable; their native conditions range are from sun to shade, rocky to woodland, moist to dry, low to high elevation. More sun than not, regular water and rich, well-drained soil probably suits them best, but they’re not picky. If you have other Columbine in your garden, the native varieties are as promiscuous as their brethren and if left to their own devices will happily cross-pollinate and provide new variety and color to your garden.

Aquilegia formosaAquilegia formosa – Western Columbine
This is by far the most common and widespread native columbine. An electric mix of bright red-orange and yellow, they will attract hummingbirds from far and wide. Not a good candidate for the pastel garden, they are bright without being garish; intensely cheerful, they are a wonderful addition to the garden.
Aquilegia flavescensAquilegia flavescens – Yellow Columbine
Yes, you thought there was only one native Columbine; understandable, since the availability of A. formosa by far dominates the market, and it is the Columbine of the Willamette Valley and lower elevations.

A. flavescens, however is also a native; it makes its home in the higher altitude regions of Oregon, high in the eastern slope of the Cascades as well as the upper reaches of the northeastern Wallow Mountains. The flowers have the same immediately recognizable Columbine shape and design, but this one is made up of shades of yellow to white in a softer, more subtle display than its other native relative.

Being at home in colder climes, this Aquilegia might be less than happy with the wet winters in the valley; you might consider a container for it, or at least be sure it has excellent drainage.

Aquilegia formosa

Aquilegia flavescens

Aquilegia formosa


Family: Ranunculaceae

Genus: Aquilegia

Common Name: Columbine

Origin: Western North America

Characteristics: Basel clump of delicate-looking green, divided and lobed leaves gives rise to wiry stems up to 3’ tall, with nodding flowers with bright orange-red erect spurs and tufts of yellow stamens and styles beneath.

Culture: Preferring full sun to partial shade and moist, fertile, well-drained soil, the native Aquilegia is quite adaptable to a variety of conditions.

Maintenance: Deadhead spent flowers to promote bloom. After flowering, entire plant can be cut to the ground to discourage leaf miners and rejuvenate the plant with fresh new growth (though if you want to save seed or let the plant reseed itself, retain the seed heads to let the seeds develop.

Pests & Diseases: Leaf Miner is a common pest, leaving its telltale off-white trails through the body of the leaves.

Propagation: Aquilegia come true from seed, and are best left to seed eventually as they’re a short-lived perennial. If ripe seed is collected from the plant, it should be shallowly sewn and placed in a cold frame or other cold spot where the seeds can stratify for three months. Plants are best planted out young, so they can set their tap root.