The stories Aquilegias could tell

Have you ever bit off the tip of a columbine flower spur and sucked out the sweet nectar reward? I remember.

The genus Aquilegia has been cultivated and beloved by gardeners for centuries. It is likely that your grandmother or mother grew them if they tended a flower garden. I always think of columbines as a staple in cottage gardens.

I also thought that columbines grew in more temperate climates. That idea changed in the 1980s when I found a golden columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) growing in the seepage of a waterway near Montezuma’s Well, a natural limestone sinkhole in the Upper Sonoran Desert of Arizona. While I was looking for turtles and avoiding leeches, I spied the yellow wildflower, looking very much like a typical columbine with extra-long spurs. It was a delightful surprise for me to learn they grew in Arizona.

Even more surprising to me, this species and others preferred moist places. The specimen I found was growing next to water. Like us, they seek out the oasis in a desert. It’s no wonder the plants flourished when I grew them next to a drain field for a septic system.

That plant made me realize the diversity and range of many plants I previously kept imprisoned in my mind behind white picket fences.

I created a meadow with Colorado’s state flower, Aquilegia coerulea, which I grew from seed. The blue and white flower is what most people think of as a typical columbine flower.

Horsetail and columbine wanted to dominate the meadow scene. I kept the horsetail in check as best as I could, because the blue flower was the star of the show. Unfortunately, the columbine was short-lived, as many of them are, but the meadow was worth every effort.

Hummingbirds and hawk moths that can reach the nectar in the long spurs pollinate the flowers. I remember as a child watching bumblebees chew holes into the spurs, and stealing the nectar without offering a pollination payment in exchange.

Aquilegia vulgaris, commonly called granny’s bonnet, offers a variety of hybrids to grow. Single flowers, such as the deep purple and white flowers in A. ’ William Guiness’, are stunning in their simplicity. The pink, double flower of A. ‘Dorothy Rose’ stood out against a backdrop of Chamaecyparis ‘Wilma’. The name “granny bonnet” fits this flower.

Another double has been cultivated for 200 years. A. ‘Nora Barlow’ is a mutant without spurs; the chartreuse, pink and white flowers are good performers in the garden too.

The deep blue flower is another reason to grow ‘Aquilegia discolor’; however, taxonomists consider it a subspecies of pyrenaica. Discolor — meaning two-colors — refers to the blue and white blades of the flower.

‘McKana Hybrids’ are tried and true columbines that are easy to find, and easy to start from seed too. If you’ve grown columbines, chances are you grew them.

Another species that I want to note here is Aquilegia yabeana for its deep purple color that makes it look black.

Most columbines are not hard to grow. Their drawback is many are short-lived perennials. The good news is they are a promiscuous bunch, and with plenty of small pollinators cavorting about, Aquilegias will cross-pollinate with any other columbine. When open pollination season is over, there will be plenty of seed to sow. However, if you prefer purebreds to mutts, and you grow more than one species, you need to make like a bee and hand-pollinate your flowers.

You may notice leaf miners making a mess of the leaves. Normally about the time the leaves are looking bad, the flowers are going to seed. Cut the whole plant back to the ground. This rejuvenates the leaves, which will quietly take a back seat in the garden.

If you see bees poking holes in your flowers, realize it is evolution in progress — guess what the flowers are going to do about nectar theft.

— Debbie Teashon photographs and writes about gardening in the maritime Pacific Northwest. She is co-author and photographer of “Gardening for the Homebrewer: Grow and Process Plants for Making Beer, Wine, Gruit, Cider, Perry, and More.” She also is editor and web master of Rainy Side Gardeners. Contact her at