One of the early joys of spring is the cheerful sight of Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) blooming in forests and gardens. In April and May, delicate two-tone flowers in red and yellow dance in the breeze, suspended from slender stems above fine-textured foliage. Elongated petals end in tubes or spurs that hold rich supplies of nectar. As the flower opens, yellow stamens descend, loaded with pollen. The over-all effect is simply enchanting.

Aquilegia canadensis flowers hold nectar at the top of tubular petals
To reach the nectar, pollinators must go through a cluster of pollen-bearing stamens

The leaves are divided into 3 leaflets, and each of those is also divided into 3 parts with rounded edges, giving the plant a soft, fern-like appearance. The leaves are full at the base of the plant, but more widely separated high on the flower stems, emphasizing the blossoms.

The foliage of Columbine is easily recognized

The genus name Aquilegia comes from Latin for “eagle” because the spurs at the top of the flower reminded someone of an eagle’s talons. The common name “Columbine” comes from the Latin word for “dove,” apparently because the same part of the flower reminded someone else of doves sitting together in a dovecote. If you don’t see either resemblance, you are not alone.

Eagle talons? Doves in a circle?

It has been said that the number of common names a plant collects is a good indicator of its popularity with humans. If so, Columbine clearly is a crowd favorite! It has been called “Granny’s bonnet,” “Granny’s nightcap,” “Jack-in-trousers,” “Dancing fairies,” “Red bells,” “Rock lily,” “Turk’s cap,” and “Meetinghouse,” among others. (“Meetinghouse” was a real puzzler until someone explained that the “doves” are arranged in a circle as if they are in a meeting!) 

Pick your favorite nickname, but definitely add this plant to your garden, because the popularity of Eastern Red Columbine is entirely justified! Native to the entire Eastern US from Canada to Florida and west almost to the Rocky Mountains, Columbine has been a garden favorite for generations. It is easy to grow and never fails to bring a smile.

The flowers and leaves may appear fragile, but the plant is surprisingly tough. Its native habitat is lightly-shaded woodlands with fairly rich, slightly acidic, and well-drained soil. But Columbine also can be found in the wild on rocky outcroppings in sand and gravel soil. Individual plants are not long-lived, and may be out-competed by more aggressive plants, but Eastern Columbine seeds itself around in delightfully surprising ways, maintaining a reliable population in a suitable area. Seeing Columbine pop up around the garden is always a pleasure.

Columbine may appear in unexpected places
“Volunteers” joined a patch of Baptisia

Eastern Columbine may be over 3 feet tall when in flower, but is typically shorter. The flowers last for weeks, and with afternoon shade, the lovely foliage remains fresh all summer. Hot weather may cause the leaves to fade before fall, but the plant is quite drought tolerant and will likely reappear — often in multiple places! — the following spring. It is winter hardy in Zones 3 to 9, and deer and rabbits leave it alone.

 Aquilegia canadensis is 2 to 3 feet tall and lovely in sun-dappled shade

As you might guess, with its red flowers and long tubular nectar wells, Eastern Columbine is a favorite of hummingbirds. Butterflies also visit the flowers, and some short-tongued bees may cheat, biting through the tops of the flowers to reach the nectar. It is the only known host plant for the Columbine Duskywing caterpillar.

Hummingbirds cannot resist Eastern Columbine

There are several cultivars of Aquilegia canadensis available, and all three are shorter than the species, reaching only 8 to 15 inches tall. A.canadensis ‘Corbett’ is an all-yellow form that is lovely, but seems to be less robust than the species. A.canadensis ‘Little Lanterns,’ which bears red and yellow flowers like the species, and ‘Pink Lanterns,’ with paler flowers, both do well in garden settings.

A. canadensis ‘Corbett’
 A. canadensis ‘Little Lanterns’

There are many other species of Columbines in the world, some native to the Western US and many native to Eurasia, but the only one native to the Eastern US is Aquilegia canadensis. It’s a darling Columbine, and we are really lucky to have it!

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8 thoughts on “Oh, My Darling Columbine!

  1. What are the pods growing on my false indigo? And, any thoughts on a why a couple of my false indigos aren’t flowering? They get plenty of sun and are otherwise very healthy plants.

  2. Loved the addition of the video to this post! Beautiful hummingbird enjoying the lovely columbine 🙂

  3. Cathy, here’s something on this native columbine from Carol Gracie’s NYBG “Plant Talk” from 2013:

    “Columbine, with its nectar-filled red spurs, blooms just at the time that hummingbirds are returning from their winter sojourns south of the border—or is it the other way around? Do hummingbirds return just when the columbine begins to flower? From either viewpoint, it is clear that these two species have coevolved to synchronize their arrival in spring.

    “Hummingbirds need a plentiful source of nectar to provide the energy required for their frenetic life style. In return they incidentally transport pollen from one flower to the next ensuring that the columbine will be fertilized and set seed, thus perpetuating the species. Some hummingbirds will become summer residents here, while others will continue their northward migration as far as Canada, following the columbine bloom north.”

    When I see the columbine bloom, I look for the hummingbirds. And there they are.

    1. Thanks for this lovely description, Brooke. Hummingbirds and Columbine really are made for each other. Two of the most joyous sights in spring!

  4. Your enchanting description of this plant, accompanied by lovely pictures makes it irresistible!

    1. That video is from a local school that planted a pollinator garden, and almost before they finished planting, that hummer showed up to check out the new Columbine!

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