Carefree Columbines

April 1, 2015

Columbines are charming, easy-care flowers that are happy in many garden settings and offer a wide variety of color choices. Listen to learn more about these hummingbird favorites, including how they got their unusual name.

This segment of The Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Musings podcast series was written by George and Becky Lohmiller and is read by Heidi Stonehill, an Almanac editor.


Perched atop of airy stems above a nest of ferny foliage, the dainty pastel flowers of columbine appear bird like as they nod up and down with the gentlest of breezes.

            The name columbine comes from the Latin “Columba” meaning Dove.  It was the Romans who first noticed that the shape and configuration of the flower petals resemble a cluster of Doves, which accounts for one of the plants common names “Doves in a Ring”. At one time this delicate looking flower was known as the lions herb because the leaves were rubbed on the hands to gain courage. Columbines botanical name, Aquilegia, means an eagle and probably refers to the flower’s long hanging nectaries that resemble the bird’s talons.

              Both in Europe and early America, columbine seeds were taken in wine to treat jaundice and other diseases of the liver, a practice curtailed in the late 1700’s when it was realized that this “cure” was often fatal.

            Eighty or so species of columbine grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere, most of them in North America and Europe.    In the wilds, these hardy perennials  can be found growing amongst ferns under a shady canopy of trees or on the exposed rocky slope of a mile high mountain, and as a garden perennial they require minimal care and never need winter protection.  As tough as they are, columbines are rather short lived and usually last only a few years, in the garden.  However,  if the spent flowers are left on the plants to form seed capsules, the glossy, black seeds will self sow or can be planted in a cold frame for transplanting to the garden the following spring.  All columbines, no matter where they are native to, will interbreed and are quite promiscuous when planted together.  This means that the seedlings of the hybrid mixes of columbine in your garden will not necessarily display the color or characteristics of their parents, but may actually sometimes outshine them.

            The personable columbines will fit in to just about any setting.  They add a woodland charm to rock gardens and naturalistic plantings and make a bold statement that won’t go unnoticed when planted in mass in the perennial border.  They even do well in containers and are a perfect perennial to grace a vase.

            Hummingbirds seem to seek out gardens where columbines grow.  Most folks believe they are attracted by the bright nectar laden blossoms, but we suspect that they just want to hang out with the eagles and doves.

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