Aquilegia formosa

22 Jun

Our native columbine on the west coast, closely related to Aquilegia canadensis on the east coast and Midwest, this is one of the best native hummingbird plants in my garden, reliable to attract them from later spring to early summer. In fact it is one of a handful of plants specifically evolved to be pollinated by hummers. Bumblebees will often “steal” nectar from it too, sometimes by chewing a hole at the end of the spur where the nectar gland is located, but the hummers are the ones that affect pollination.

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Once established these are easy low care plants, often not even needing water. They can be a bit delicate to get started though, especially since young plants are highly susceptible to a number of bugs and slugs which in their first couple of springs can chew down the new growth and/or hollow out the overwintering tuber till there is nothing left for the plant to grow from. Careful attention in late winter and early spring to keep these under control will help, but a good draining, rich soil sight often helps even more, and avoid overly thick organic mulches if you can. Often I mulch these with rock rather than leaves, which they seem to enjoy.

I get the feeling this is more of a pioneer species, often short lived and very fast to set seed and develop flowers (it can bloom a month after seedlings develop the first cotyledons). It seems a good idea to regularly let them self seed to both increase the population, and to replace older plants that often fade after a couple of years.

At the same time, I always want to extend the blooming season, so I typically will deadhead to keep it flowering longer. Doing this religiously can extend the blooming season a month or more into July. I usually leave one or two seed pods per plant to ripen, and try and remove the rest.

As for sun exposure, in my garden they seem happiest in the sunnier beds, but honestly there are few areas here that get full hot sun. Mostly I would describe the areas they are doing well in as “protected sun”, often tucked into the edges of shrubbery where they can use the outlying branches of the shrubs as support for their often gangley, wiry stems. I love how they can weave into and through the branches of things like evergreen huckleberry and snowberry, almost giving these shrubs a second flowering.

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One note on columbines in general- these are generally very “promiscuous” plants, meaning that if you have several different species and hybrids in the garden, they will ALL likely hybridize into a mishmash of colors shapes and sizes. For some this is a good thing, and they like the surprise of what will come up where. For me, I like the orange and yellow bicolor of the straight native, plus there is the satisfaction of growing what the local birds evolved with, so for that reason I ONLY plant the native species here, and eradicate any seedlings that don’t come up true to the native. Luckily none of my neighbors seem to be growing them these days, so it hasn’t been a problem since I ripped out my last few hybrids years ago.

Propagation is almost always by seed. As I mentioned above, they develop quickly and can even flower the first year from seed sewn in fall or late winter. I usually just scatter the seed from a fresh pod where I want them and forget about it, lol. This is one plant that does well that way, and will seed itself well, but not overly aggressively. Seedling mortality tends to be fairly high too, which helps keep the population in check. Still, if you let it go to town it can still seed itself pretty aggressively, which is another reason for dead heading most of the seed pods.

It’s odd we don’t see this in the wild more often, it should really be more common than it is. It certainly should be a staple of anyone wishing to grow native plants, and those who want to attract hummingbirds. This is one of those “try it, you’ll like it!” plants.

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