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Aquilegia (Columbines)

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Columbines are the quintessential shade-garden plant. Once you’ve found their spot, they happily make graceful leaves year after year. In early summer, there are the transcendent flowers, designed to glow in slanting woodland light. This year, deer pruned the first buds on this plant, but it came back, making one perfect flower. And that was enough.

This particular columbine’s name is lost in the mists of time. I wrote it on the aluminum tag, which buried itself and seems to have entered an alternate universe somewhere in the container. I bought the plant at a local nursery years ago, I know that much.

Whatever its name, I rarely think of it except when I see the flowers come out each year. It takes care of itself through heat, freezes, drought, and rain.

The container I have it in is one of those desperate measures that somehow has worked out better than a well-plotted care system. (It was ever thus.) I knew aquilegias like moisture; the wild ones grow by creeksides and wherever the soil is always wet (or at least damp). I was gardening in a drought with a tiny water supply. So I devised a container out of a plastic storage tub, using a bit of gravel on the bottom for some drainage, but incorporating polymer-saving crystals into the top layer of soil. I didn’t make any drainage holes at all.

For those who don’t know about them, polymer crystals absorb many times their weight in water, then release it to the soil gradually. That ensures that plants don’t dry out, especially in small containers. They get a steady water supply, and you water less. A pretty good deal.

I’m careful not to overwater, but since I can’t regulate the winter rains, I can only conclude that aquilegias are true waterside plants that have adapted to constant wetness without rotting.

The only care they get is the fertilizing and watering that I give to most of my plants.

I still haven’t successfully grown columbines from seed, though the one I have seems to seed itself nicely. Just one of the many frustrations of a gardener. I keep trying, because there are many aquilegias you just can’t get in plant form. This winter, I planted seed from Aquilegia atrata, a deep almost-black. I love that color in plants anyway, but I thought it would be especially nice along with my white columbine. This fall I’m thinking of getting an Aquilegia chrysantha plant, as a consolation. Pale yellow is beautiful, too.

I tend to prefer the columbines that are species (wild) types, or cultivars that don’t go far from their wild heritage. You can’t improve something that already has a perfect form. Double columbines just seem full and fussy to me, and as for spurless columbines–as Irish fiddler Martin Hayes said of arriving in New York and discovering decaffeinated coffee—“What’s the point?”

Places to get wild and wild-type columbines:

your local nursery, when they’re in bloom so you can see them

Goodwin Creek
J. L. Hudson
Thompson & Morgan
Annie’s Annuals
Select Seeds

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