Plants - Perennials

Pretty columbines are a wonderful addition to any spring garden.

Well-known horticulturist and author Dr. Allan Armitage declares that “a garden without columbines is simply unacceptable,” and we have to agree. They are of easiest culture, and although individual plants may only live for two or three years, allowing a few to set seed at the end of the season virtually guarantees that you’ll never be without them.

Flowering alongside daffodils and tulips, columbines bloom in a veritable rainbow of colours and bicolours. Some have long nectar-­filled spurs while others look like mini-dahlias. But whether they’re double-­flowered or single, they are all exquisite.

'Nora Barlow', PhytoPhoto.

Plant profile: Columbine hybrids

The common European columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) was already an established cottage garden plant in the 16th century when Huguenot refugees arrived in England from Europe; over the next century, they refined it further, selecting for unusual shapes and colours. Then, in 1637, John Tradescant the Younger (1608­-62) visited Virginia, returning to England with the Canada columbine (A. canadensis) in tow, and the Great Aquilegia Plant Swap was on. Formerly separated by an ocean, the mostly blue­ flowered European species came face to face with their largely red­- and yellow-­flowered North American kin, and it was love at first sight.

Few plant species interbreed more freely or easily than those of Aquilegia: 10 years ago, when I visited the U.K.’s National Collection at Hardwicke House (Fen Ditton, Cambridgeshire), columbine expert L. John Drake, M.B.E. (1943­-2012) confided, “You know, they have the morals of a tomcat.” And because so much botanical hanky­panky occurs between species, without DNA sequencing it’s well nigh impossible to know the true origins of many of the plants we grow today.

Music Series hybrid, Getty Images.

Modern hybrids

Generally speaking, most modern hybrids are complex mixes between the blue and white Rocky Mountain columbine (A. coerulea) and the yellow Texas columbine (A. chrysantha), together with a smattering of A. canadensis and A. vulgaris. One of the oldest strains still in commerce is the Barlow Series, named in honour of Charles Darwin’s granddaughter Lady Emma Nora Barlow (1885-1989), a plant geneticist. According to L. John Drake, Lady Barlow spotted her namesake flower growing in a Cambridge garden in the 1920s and the rest, as they say, is history.

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