The wild columbine flower's unique tubular shapes is beautifully optimized for long hummingbird beaks and bee tongues. Download a large version (800x600) of this image.
Pretty little red and yellow flowers nodding in the springtime breeze: That's wild columbine, a favorite of native plant gardeners throughout eastern North America. A member of the buttercup family, wild columbine is a perennial that self seeds so boisterously in the garden that it might as well be an annual. The flowers hang like bells from slender nodding stems. They are 1-2 in (2.5-5 cm) long, with five red petal-like sepals and five red and yellow true petals, each petal with an erect red spur. The fernlike compound leaves, 4-6 in (10-15 cm) wide, have 10-20 3-lobed leaflets. The fruit is a beak shaped pod which turns upright, dries and splits open to release shiny black seeds that look for all the world like fleas! Wild columbine gets about 24 in (60 cm) tall and 12 in (30 cm) across. The foliage is evergreen except when temperatures fall below 0°F (-18°C).
Location Aquilegia canadensis occurs naturally from Manitoba, east to Nova Scotia, south to Georgia, and west to New Mexico. Its range barely extends into northern Florida in just three Panhandle counties. Wild columbine grows in open, mesic, calcareous woods, often on rocky slopes.
This is one of the easiest garden plants to grow. Light: Wild columbine can be grown in full sun to dappled sun to part shade, and even in mostly shady situations. It seems to do best in the light shade of large deciduous trees. Moisture: Wild columbine thrives in a dry to moderately moist soil, acidic or limey. It cannot tolerate flooding. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3-8. Propagation: Wild columbine will reseed freely, and the seeds germinate readily. You can dig up your new seedling plants in fall and replant them where you want them. Or just collect the shiny little seeds and scatter them where you want; they do not need to be planted and covered.
Steve grows a patch of wild columbine beneath tall oaks at the edge of a woodlot where they bloom off and throughout the season beginning in mid-spring.
Wild columbine is a natural for the woodland garden, especially one with rocky or calcareous soils. Let it establish and reseed itself in a semi-shady corner of the yard or along a wooded path. Here in my North Florida garden, I have wild columbine growing with trilliums (Trillium underwoodii) under oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia), all natives of rocky woodland slopes. This is a great plant for a rock garden or a stone wall. Wild columbine also makes a nice potted plant.
Even if it never bloomed, wild columbine would deserve a place in the woodland garden for the beauty of its graceful lacy leaves that seem to float above the ground. But wild columbine does bloom, and the dainty flowers are produced over a long spring and summer season and often more than once per year. Hummingbirds and bumblebees are the only creatures with long enough tongues to extract the sweet nectar from the long tubelike spurs.