Sunday, March 12, 2006

Lovely Columbine

1,001 words, Copyright, 2006, Harvest McCampbell
Published by the Hoopa Valley People Newspaper March 7, 2006
Posted here with permission

The first time I laid eyes on the lovely native western columbine I was hiking up a mountain stream with my Grandmother. We came around a bend and there in the dappled shade the bright yellow and red flowers glowed like rare and strange jewels. The shade was cast by alders and firs that shared the bank with a tumble of large stones. Two hummingbirds darted down from the trees, quarreling over the nectar rich flowers. I was entranced.

Columbines in a variety of species and colors are found growing wild in many areas of the world. Gardeners have long been entranced with columbine and have carried their seed home. Collectors have scoured the high moist places that columbine loves. We now can grow columbines from many countries and in many colors.

Columbines have been specially designed by nature to have a symbiotic relationship with hummingbirds. Their long and unusual spurs are well stocked with nectar. As hummingbirds hover in for a refreshing snack their head feathers get dusted with pollen. This pollen is then carried to the next flower where it provides fertilization for the next generation of seeds.

Gardeners soon discovered that the columbines in their collections were easily cross pollinated by the attentions of the tiny glitter-feathered birds. Off-spring of these crosses often bore little resemblance to either parent. The exciting field of columbine breeding was born. Columbine plants are now available that grow no more than 8 inches tall. Some grow up to 3 feet. There are columbines with bronze, silver, chartreuse, and variegated foliage. Some sport 4 inch flower spurs, while others have flowers with no spurs at all.

Whether you have an interest in heirloom flowers, native plants, or the latest offerings of scientific plant breeding there is a columbine for you. They are available in the brightest colors imaginable which match the current trends in city landscapes. However, they are also still available in pastels, in single colors, bi-colors, and mixed colors that could compete with any rainbow. As far as I am concerned the native western columbine still rocks. But no matter what your taste in flowers runs to, there is a columbine for you.

Columbines thrive in our cool wet winter weather. They love our summer high mountain or ocean and river influenced cool nights. While there are columbines that will thrive in full sun, most are happiest in coastal fog or dappled light. They can be planted in containers, in flower beds, or mixed borders on the shady side of the house or under the protection of trees.

Columbines were once employed by pharmacists in compounding medicines, but they have long been abandoned for safer substances. The truth is, the foliage is somewhat toxic. Something to bear in mind if you have young children who might be inclined to sample everything you grow. On the other hand, if deer or rabbits are a problem in your plantings, columbine might be just what the doctor ordered. Columbines are considered one of the most critter resistant and carefree flowers we can plant.

They are bothered by few pests. The exception being slugs – but that is only when they are seedlings. Columbine does need careful irrigation though its first summer, but once it is established it is quite hardy for being such a delicate and ferny looking plant. For those who would rather not be bothered with seeds potted columbines are often available from local nurseries. Right now some of the larger nurseries have 1 gallon columbines in bloom. Later in the season, bargain shoppers will find columbines in mixed colors available in six packs.

If you have the time and energy, seeds are the least expensive way to go. (Especially if you can convince your aunty not to dead head her columbine so you can get free seeds.) By starting with seeds you also will find the greatest selection of varieties. Which can definitely be a bonus if you need a critter resistant landscape. Right now is a perfect time to start columbine from seed.

Columbine seed benefits from our late winter and early spring weather. Periods of cool (even freezing) weather, interspersed with warmer days actually help columbine seeds germinate. Unlike some flower seeds, they will not all pop up at the same time. Rather, a few seeds will germinate at a time over several weeks to several months. Your main job during this time will be to keep them moist, and to keep the slugs away.

I really like sprouting my seeds on wet paper towels placed in a zip lock bag. This provides for the even moisture and slug protection. However, if you don’t check them every day, and transfer any seedlings to pots, the poor things will die. After the seedlings are transferred to pots, I keep them all in a nursery flat, which I bring in at night. This provides for some on going slug protection. Once the columbines hit about 3 inches tall, which takes four or five months from germination, the slugs are likely to leave them alone.

When you are shopping for columbine it is good to be armed with the botanical name. “Aquilegia” is the genus all columbines are grouped under, and it is often the name they are sold by. (I would suggest writing it down, as I have no idea how to pronounce it.) If your local nursery (or your auntie) does not have columbines that suit your fancy, you will find a great selection of seed from: (If your seeds arrive after the weather warms up, you can imitate nature by placing them in the fridge for a few weeks prior to planting.) Plants, which are definitely easier, are also available mail order from:

For more information on growing columbine ask your local library or bookstore to request “Perennials for Northern California” by Bob Tanem and Don Williamson, Lone Pine Publishing, ISBN 1-55105-251-2; or “Wildly Successful Plants / Northern California,” by Pam Peirce, Sasquatch Books, Seattle, ISBN1-57061-358-3.

1,001 words, Copyright, 2006, Harvest McCampbell
Published by the Hoopa Valley People Newspaper March 7, 2006
Posted here with permission

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