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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 mining history.

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 want.

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 weather.

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.

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Golden Columbine

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Remembrance Columbine

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 soil.

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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Date last revised: 01/05/2010