Native Eastern columbine: Growing tips for a woodland, wildlife garden

First columbine encounter on Niagara Escarpment

I’ll never forget my first sighting of wild native columbine.

I was hiking along the Niagara Escarpment with my camera and stumbled upon two beautiful clumps of the native plant, columbine, in their prime and growing on the edge of an overhanging, steep cliff.

I had to get a shot of them. So, being young and not too bright, I moved way too close to the cliff’s edge to get the images.

Needless to say I got the shots and survived to tell you about it.

Not the best shots maybe, but ones I’ll never forget.

These wildflowers made such an impression on me that day that native columbines were the first wildflowers I planted in our front woodland wildlife garden more than ten years later.

(For my article on why native plants are vital in our gardens, go here.)

Although the Eastern Columbine may look delicate, the plants are actually quite hardy, living for many years, often in quite harsh environments. When I say my first sight of them was growing on a cliff, I wasn’t kidding. These delicate-looking flowers appeared to be growing right out of a crack in the granite cliffs.

Columbine in natural setting

Not only did I plant them in my front garden, I also recreated in my garden – at least as best I could – that same image of the columbines growing on the limestone edge of the escarpment.

Our native columbines grow out of, and next to, a large limestone boulder surrounded by clumps of maidenhair ferns. I originally tucked the plant right up beside the edge of the boulder so that it could draw heat from the rock in early spring. It wasn’t long, however, before a plant emerged from a thin pocket of soil along a crack in the rock. These little guys will find a spot to grow anywhere they can. This plant stays more compact than the one growing in the soil beside the rock, but together they create much the same feeling I experienced so many years ago overhanging the cliff.

Don’t mistake the native Eastern columbine for a delicate wildflower. These early spring bloomers can be found growing in some harsh areas, even out of granite boulders in my front yard or on cliff edges.

Don’t mistake the native Eastern columbine for a delicate wildflower. These early spring bloomers can be found growing in some harsh areas, even out of granite boulders in my front yard or on cliff edges.

Native wildflowers that combine well with columbines

The Eastern columbines looks right at home growing alongside other native woodland plants. Besides the maindenhair ferns, mine also share space with Solomon’s seals, foamflowers and bloodroot where they make an attractive early-spring combination with other woodland natives.

Our native Columbines can also look stunning growing in large swaths all on their own or in large garden borders as a middle-height plant where the flowers growing atop the plants provide an almost ethereal feeling.

The columbines and maidenhair ferns both like moist, well-drained sandy, limestone-based soil. If the columbines are planted in too rich garden soil, don’t be surprised if they put on excessive vegetative growth with weak stems. Instead, plants in sandy-type soils will prosper and grow in a more tight, compact form, surviving for many years. They prefer partly-shaded woodland habitat with calcareous soils that are not too rich. A single plant, while in bloom, can put out a large number of flowers. Columbines will naturalize under the right growing conditions and in a woodland or native plant garden.

Native Eastern Columbine in the garden mixed with ferns, epimediums and sedum.

Native Eastern Columbine in the garden mixed with ferns, epimediums and sedum.

The Eastern red Columbines, also knows as the wild red columbine, or Canadian columbine, is a relatively low maintenance plant that is actually in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). Spent flower stalks can be clipped off to tidy up the plant, but don’t cut the plant back to the ground in case it is being used by host larvae.

Columbines can be attacked by leaf miners that leave serpentine trails in the leaves. They are generally harmless to the native plants.

In the wild, native columbines can be found in open woodlands and rocky areas throughout North America. In Canada they stretch from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan in zones 2-9. It can also be found through much of the eastern United States.

Because these perennial plants, which grow 20 to 30 inches high, are self propagating, my original planting years ago continues to self seed in the same general vicinity where they were originally planted. More native columbines, were planted last year in a shaded area of our back wildflower garden.

Backlit columbine in spring.

Backlit columbine in spring.

Native columbines, know as the Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilega canadensis L.), bloom from April to July in rocky open woods and slopes, and provide an early nectar source for hummingbirds. The flowers are actually a critical food source for returning ruby-throated hummingbirds in spring where they tend to bloom for about a month beginning in May or June depending on weather conditions.

The Eastern Columbine can grow up to 4 ft. tall but don’t be surprised if yours stay much more compact. You can expect the plants to be more in the 6-12 inch zone if grown in shady woodland consditions in average soil.

The showy, nodding red and yellow flowers have five hollow spurs that point upward and contain nectar that is particularly attractive to hummingbirds and other long-tongued insects. Because the flowers point downward, hummingbirds and insects including bees, butterflies and hawk moths have to come up from below the flowers to obtain the nectar.

Finches and buntings are known to consume the small, shiny black seeds that are contained in five pod-shaped follicles after the bloom period.

The columbine is larval host to the Columbine Duskywing skipper found in Southern Ontario and throughout the Eastern United States. The female skipper deposits eggs under the leaves of the native columbine where tiny caterpillars feed on them until they emerge as the small dark brown, nondescript skippers.

I have found that both the deer and rabbits leave these native plants alone in our zone 6-7 garden. In warmer areas, where the plants are considered evergreen, this may not hold true.

The light green to blue-green leaves of the Columbine are divided and subdivided into threes. The foliage is attractive even when not in bloom and turns yellow in fall.

Our native wildflower can be described as an attractive, old-fashioned plant, but it’s not without its accolades. This erect, open herbaceous perennnial plant has received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

That makes it a worthy consideration for a spot in your garden. I grow mine both in the front and backyard.

Don’t mistake the very showy European Columbine (A. vulgaris), with their blue, pink, violet and white short-spurred flowers, with our native variety.

The Canadian Wildlife Federation website also lists the following native columbines for consideration depending on the growing zones where you live.

Sitka columbine (A. formosa)

  • Native to: southern Yukon, B.C. and swAlta.

  • Habitat: moist to dry open areas such as streamsides, rocky slopes, woods and meadows at subalpine elevations (moist alpine meadows and mountain meadows)

  • Appearance: up to about one metre (three feet) tall, nodding red flowers and short spurs

Yellow columbine(A. flavescens)

  • Native to: B.C. and swAlta.

  • Habitat: moist meadows, screes/slopes and acid rocky ledges at moderate to high elevations (up to just above timberline and higher than A. formosa)

  • Appearance: a pale yellow flowering columbine with long spurs, sometimes with a pinkish tinge, blooming from late June to early August. Nodding flowers.

Jones’ columbine(A. jonesii)

  • Native to: swAlta.

  • Habitat: subalpine limestone screes and crevices

  • Appearance: a low-growing plant that reaches five to 12 centimetres tall, with leathery, hairy leaves that bunch together to resemble coral. It has only one or two short-stalked flowers that are a blue and typically face upwards.

Blue columbine (A. brevistyla)

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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