A Columbine State of Mind
By Carl Wilson, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension
Horticulturist, Denver County
Columbines are an appropriate remembrance of the students slain in Colorado and gardeners
can find no easier flower to grow.
The connection of columbine flowers with the Columbine High School shooting tragedy is
appropriate in Colorado considering school children voted columbine the state flower in
1899. The flower they had in mind is the Rocky Mountain Columbine, Aquilegia coerulea.
With it's blue-violet petals and spurs, white cup and yellow center, it is a strikingly
handsome flower. Blue symbolizes the sky, white the snow, and yellow the state's rich gold
About one third of the world's 70 species of columbines are native to North America with
the others fairly equally split between Europe and Asia. Most all species can be
successfully grown and flowered in our climate.
Columbine culture is as simple as buying a plant, digging a hole in most any reasonable
soil, planting and watering. The location should preferably be in at least a half day sun
to encourage good bloom.
Most nurseries carry a good selection of both species and hybrid columbines. Because
columbines are notorious at cross breeding and self-sowing, it is wise to see the flowers
of the plants you purchase in order to avoid rogue plants bearing flower colors you don't
Columbines can also be started from seed if you don't mind waiting a few years to see them
come into bloom. Beware that the seed needs a cool and moist "winter" period
before it will germinate. This can be accomplished by sowing outdoors in fall in the high
country or in January along the Front Range.
The fact that columbines cross and self seed is probably a good thing considering they are
generally a short-lived perennial lasting only 4 or 5 years. This also makes them good for
natural or wildflower gardens. Note that most all columbines tend to decline in hot
In addition to the Rocky Mountain columbine, another favorite for Zone 4-5 Front Range
elevations is the Golden columbine, A.chrysantha. It's a vigorous grower and
combines excellent heat tolerance with a long display of fragrant yellow flowers from late
spring to early summer. It also re-blooms well if deadheaded. This species is native to
southern Colorado and New Mexico.
For high country or rock gardeners, consider the high elevation native A.
saximontana with blue and white flowers and hooked spurs. Another good choice is A.
laramiensis, a white flowered dwarf-type from Wyoming. Both are readily found at area
nurseries and like many alpines, should be grown in humus-rich but well drained, gritty
Note that columbines are not drought tolerant plants and require regular summer watering
to maintain green, healthy foliage. The biggest pests are aphids and powdery mildew.
Both can be
minimized by regular watering. Stunted foliage and misshapen flowers are sure signs of
aphids that are readily handled with insecticidal soaps.
Columbines are one of the most elegant and architecturally interesting flowers. They are a
natural for any Rocky Mountain garden.
Photographs courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.
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