The wild columbines are blooming red and yellow as May comes to a close, each delicate but spectacular flower consisting of a fountain-like cluster of five spikey, cone-shaped, hollow petals, with yellow stamens showering out the center. Because the hollow petals are so deep, this plant requires long-tongued pollinators: bumblebees and ruby-throated hummingbirds.
Columbine is easy to grow. It likes light shade or partial sun, though it may tolerate full sun. It’s satisfied with moist to dry conditions and loamy, rocky, or slightly sandy soil. With a few exceptions, you can find wild columbine in a variety of habitats throughout Illinois.
Columbine is considered a perennial, but is short-lived. Though not prolific, it usually manages to increase in numbers of plants a little each year by seed. One native plant gardener, though, told us her columbine up and moved to the neighbor’s yard, never to return home. Another example of how our genetically robust natives sometimes choose their own placement without our permission.
While columbine blooms in late spring, some gardeners like to keep the blooms going for many weeks by cutting off the spent ones before seeds form. The energy saved from seed making goes into making more flowers.
Leafminer larvae may feed on the leaves, causing light-colored tunnels, but they rarely destroy the plant. Because its leaves are toxic, you generally don’t need to worry about columbine being nibbled by common mammals, such as rabbits or deer.
According to some lore, Meskwaki Indians used ground columbine seeds as an ingredient in a love potion. One source reports it was at one time considered America’s national flower because the spiked flower petals resemble a bald eagle’s talons. Some common names for this plant are granny’s bonnets (picture your granny wearing a columbine-shaped hat) and dancing fairies. And who couldn’t use some dancing fairies in their garden?
Wild columbine: Aquilegia canadensis
Ruby-throated hummingbird: Archilochus colubris
Bumblebee: Bombus species
Leaf miner: Lyriomyza species