I am frequently asked what my “favourite” native plant is. To me, that’s like asking a mother which is her favourite child. But invariably, when asked, Wild Columbine is the first to pop into my mind. I love how it is drought tolerant, produces abundant, easily collected seeds, and has amazing 2 tone flowers. It attracts butterflies, bees and even hummingbirds. And it is, oh, so photogenic. In my garden it grows in full sun to mostly shade and is one of the earliest plants to green up in the spring. (Plant Description and In the Garden sections, below, are courtesy of Shaun Booth of In Our Nature).
Common Name: Wild Columbine
Scientific Name: Aquilegia canadensis
Family: Ranunculaceae (buttercup family)
Alternate Common Names: Canada Columbine, Cluckies, Common American Columbine, Eastern Red Columbine, Jack-in-trousers, Rock Lily, Wild Red Columbine
Plant description: Wild Columbine feature light green to blue-green, compound leaves that occur as basal foliage around the base of the plant and as alternating leaves up the flower stems. Each compound leaf is made up of three leaflets, each of which are lobed and measure 6cm long and wide. Nodding flowers, up to 5cm long, are borne on thin, branching stalks that rise above the basal leaves. Flowers are defined by five rolled-up, yellow petals that taper upwards, ending in nectar rich spurs. Dangling yellow stamens (the part that carries the pollen) protrude from the bottom of the flowers. The flowers give way to erect green seed pods that turn brown as they dry and then split open to release shiny black seeds.
In the Garden: The graceful, nodding flowers of Wild Columbine are a unique and welcomed addition to native plant gardens. This plant is valued by gardeners for a stunning floral display, adaptability and ease of growth. This drought tolerant beauty is a jack of all trades in the garden. It is extremely adaptable to light and moisture conditions as long as drainage is good.
Skill level: beginner
Lifespan: short-lived perennial, but self-seeds readily
Exposure: full sun to full shade, though does best in part shade
Soil Type: sandy, well-drained soils, not too rich
Moisture: dry to moist
Height: 30-90 cm
Spread: 30-60 cm
Bloom Period: May, Jun, Jul
Colour: red or pink and yellow
Fragrant (Y/N): N
Showy Fruit (Y/N): N
Cut Flower (Y/N): Y
Pests: leaf miner
Natural Habitat: woodlands and rocky slopes, slopes of deep ravines, steep stream and riverbanks, old-fields
Wildlife Value: blooms attract hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and hawk moths while seeds are consumed by finches and buntings.
Butterfly Larva Host Plant For: Columbine Duskywing (Erynnis lucilius)
USDA Hardiness Zone: 3-8
Propagation: Most easily propagated by seed sown on the surface in the fall (seeds need light to germinate, so do not cover). If starting indoors, it does best with at least 60 days cold moist stratification. Division of mature plants when not flowering is difficult but possible with care. Young seedlings, however, transplant easily when less than 15 cm (6”) tall and can be a great source of new plants as wild columbine readily self seeds.
Additional Info: Wild Columbine is a short-lived perennial and will persist by self-seeding into bare soil.