How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Wild Columbine

Featuring striking tubular flowers and semi-evergreen foliage, this branching perennial deserves a place in your garden. Organic farmer Jenna Rich explains why you should add them to your lineup and how to easily plant, grow, and care for them.

Slender stems of wild columbine plants gracefully sway, supporting red flowers that dance in the breeze. Lush green leaves form a verdant backdrop, contrasting beautifully with the fiery blooms of the columbine.

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Wild columbine thrives in zones across North America and is a beautiful accent to shady gardens of any style. With its interesting flowers and lack of serious pests or diseases, it’s an easy pick if you want to add a low-maintenance, high-reward perennial to your garden this season. 

Follow along to learn how to plant, grow, and care for wild columbine

Overview 

A close-up captures the delicate beauty of wild columbine flowers, their pink petals contrasting elegantly with yellow stamens at their centers. In the background, the leaves of trees form a blurred yet harmonious backdrop.
Botanical Name  Aquilegia canadensis
Plant Type  Herbaceous, bell-flowering perennial
Family Ranunculaceae (buttercup)
Genus Aquilegia (columbine)
Special Characteristics Deep nectaries that pollinators love, including native columbine duskywing
Native Area North America east of the Rockies
Sun Exposure Partial shade
Height  1-3 feet
Watering Requirements  Low to moderate 
Soil Type  Sandy, loamy, rocky, well-draining
Pests  Duskywing, leafminers, sawflies, aphids, borers
Diseases Gray mold, powdery mildew, wilt 
Maintenance Low
Hardiness Zones 3-8
Bloom Time Spring, months zone dependent, fruits summer, seeds early fall

What Is It? 

Also known as eastern red columbine, wild columbine is a flowering, branching perennial. It blooms from March to July and goes dormant in late summer, returning in fall. It is part of the Aquilegia genus, which includes 65 species. Aquila is Latin for “eagle”, which may have inspired the genus name. The flower petals resemble the claws of birds of prey.

It grows from Nova Scotia to southeast Florida and into Texas, thriving on slopes, in ravines, streams, river banks, and wooded rocky areas. It often sprouts up in vast areas burned by wildfires. 

While toxic to most herbivores, its nectar is important to the ecosystem as food for various insects and long-tongued pollinators. The flowers are edible for humans.

Appearance

A close-up of a flower with its pink to yellow petals and delicate yellow stamens.  a blur of green stems reveals a cluster of these charming plants in their natural habitat.
The distinctive, bell-shaped flowers attract bees and hummingbirds for pollination.

Wild columbine has unique red and yellow, one to two inch, five-petaled, bell-shaped flowers that face downward. The tubular petals transition from yellow to deep red from the rounded tip to the base. The stamen and styles are strong and prominent, each featuring a yellow rounded tip resembling tassels. Pollinators, especially bees and hummingbirds, feed on its nectar. 

The hermaphroditic plant’s reddish green stem grows partially underground and is one to three feet tall and about 18 inches wide when mature. Branching occurs on the upper part of the erect plant. Mature compound leaves are two inches wide and three inches long, blue-green, and grow in groups of three leaflets. 

After the flowers wither, pod-shaped follicles form in their place, which contain tiny black seeds.

Cultivation and Brief History 

A fuchsia pink flower with a yellow center basks in warm sunlight, its delicate petals unfolding gracefully.  a blurred array of similar flowers and lush green leaves creates a picturesque natural setting.
The small flower columbine has been cultivated since the mid-1600s.

The genus Aquilera is believed to have arrived in North America during the Pleistocene, sometime between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago. Unglaciated land connections between Alaska and the Yukon allowed plants and animals to travel freely between the continents. DNA analysis of Aquilegia shows that two species from Eastern Europe and one from Central Asia are ancestors of all species that have since evolved. 

Wild columbine has been cultivated since the mid-1600s and it’s believed present-day small flower columbine (Aquilegia brevistyla) is the founder of all the others that exist today

How to Grow

Wild columbine is easy to grow and a low-maintenance landscape option

Sunlight Requirements 

A plant stretches its delicate stems towards the sun, its leaves shimmering in warm light. Crimson-red flowers bloom gracefully, adding vibrant splashes of color to the verdant landscape.
Optimal sunlight conditions prevent foliage burn and potential dormancy.

Plants should receive dappled sun to partial shade. Afternoon shade is appreciated in especially hot and dry climates. Foliage can become burned from too much sun, and plants may go dormant if temperatures are too high, returning in fall. 

Water Requirements 

The stems, adorned with glistening water drops, contrast against a soft focus backdrop of lush greenery. The red flowers gracefully dangle, adding a vivid burst of color to the scene.
Irrigate the young plants weekly with one inch of water.

Young plants should be watered one inch weekly until they’re established. The soil should not become soggy. Mature plants are drought-tolerant. Avoid leaving foliage wet to decrease the risk of fungal diseases.

Soil Requirements 

A brown sandy loam soil reveals its diverse texture, blending large and fine particles seamlessly. The soil's composition suggests a balanced mix of coarse and smooth elements, presenting a rich texture ideal for plant growth and water retention.
Prioritize well-draining soil with low to moderate richness for optimal growth.

Well-draining is a top priority, and low to moderate richness is best. Rich soil may cause weak stems and a shorter lifespan. The preferred type is sandy, sandy loam, or medium loamy. The pH should be between 6.8 and 7.2. 

Mulch

White and green gloved hands tenderly cradle rich pine tree bark mulch, highlighting a connection with nature. In the background, a softly blurred ground covered in the same mulch sets a serene and earthy scene.
Apply mulch around young transplants in spring to aid in weed suppression.

Mulching young transplants will help suppress weeds, retain moisture, and cool the soil in warmer regions. Add a layer around the root system to new plants and emerging seedlings in spring. No extra mulch must be applied to protect it over the winter as it’s very tolerant of cold. 

Temperature and Humidity 

A close-up of wild columbine stems adorned with delicate pink flowers gracefully dangling. a greenery scene creates a soft, blurred ambiance, accentuating the intricate details of the floral display.
This wildflower can adapt to various climates but struggles in year-round excessive heat.

Plants are both heat and cold-tolerant and can adapt to many climates except year-round excessive heat. Blooms occur in spring and fall when temperatures are cooler. Some cultivars are hardy to -30°F (-34°C) and will suffer in temperatures above 110°F (43°C). 

Fertilizing is unnecessary, but adding some organic matter to the area before transplanting will be appreciated. A balanced, liquid fertilizer can be added to containers as new growth energy in spring. 

Pruning

A wild columbine plant showcasing its elegance with striking red flowers and elongated green leaves. This graceful perennial adds a vibrant splash of color to its natural surroundings.
Prune back to the basal leaves after the plant’s first bloom.

Cut back to basal leaves, about half their height, after the plant’s first bloom to encourage a possible second flush in fall. Leaves will remain semi-evergreen for the summer. Consistent deadheading will send energy back into the root system and deter self-seeding. 

Propagation 

Propagation doesn’t happen vegetatively. New plants must come from seed or division of rootstocks. Buy nursery-propagated, instead of wild-collected plants to ensure they are high-quality and disease-free. 

Starting From Seed

Brown wild columbine seed heads stand tall against a blurred backdrop, showcasing their intricate shapes and textures. The earthy tones of the seeds contrast beautifully with the varied foliage in the background.
Prepare seeds with cold, moist stratification for six to eight weeks before sowing.

Provide seeds with a cold, moist stratification for six to eight weeks by placing them in a moist paper towel or with some sand and placing them in the refrigerator. Sow indoors eight to ten weeks before the last frost or sprinkle them in a prepared garden bed outdoors in early spring.

When sown outdoors, the seeds will receive a natural cold stratification. Light aids in germination, so barely cover seeds and keep the soil moist. 

Germination can take up to four weeks. Transplant seedlings into larger containers when they have one set of true leaves. 

Self-Seeding

A close-up of red flowers dangling gracefully amidst brown stems. The blurred background beautifully showcases greenery, creating a natural contrast that highlights the delicate details of the floral arrangement.
Spring-born seedlings produce basal leaves during their first year of growth.

Plants will readily self-seed. New seedlings will emerge in spring. They’ll produce basal leaves in year one, blooming in their second year. 

Splitting Rootstock

A wild columbine plant, adorned with red flowers and brown seed pods, basks in the warm sunlight. The backdrop is a lush forest, its details softened into a blur.
Divide plants during spring dormancy to control spread.

Wild columbine can be split in spring when its dormant to keep the spread under control and to create new plants. Doing so every few years keeps it healthy. Dig up the rootstock and divide the roots. Then transplant your divisions into new areas of the garden.

Planting 

This wildflower doesn’t love having its roots disturbed, so as long as conditions outside are ideal, transplanting seedlings when they’re smaller is better to avoid transplant shock. 

Spacing

A vibrant  plant stands tall, showcasing its crimson flowers and deep green foliage. Nearby, a variety of other plants thrive, creating a tapestry of colors and textures in the natural landscape.
Provide 10 to 15 inches of space between plants.

Give plants 10-15 inches of space between. If direct seeding, surround the area with annuals as your plants get established, which may take up to three years

Transplanting

A sunlit plant stands adorned with green leaves and dark, promising flower buds, ready to bloom. In the background, other plants thrive, adding depth to the vibrant botanical scene.
Seedlings and bare root plants should be transplanted in early spring or fall.

Transplant seedlings and bare roots in early spring or fall once daytime temperatures are consistently above 50°F (10°C) and properly hardened off. Organic matter may be added to a weed-free, loose, well-draining area.

Plants can withstand a sunny position if you live in a cooler climate. Some growers have had success growing wild columbine in containers. 

Remove the plant from its container gently and keep as much of the root ball intact as possible. Dig a hole, drop it in, and surround it with native soil, gently tamping it down. Water it well, and don’t allow the soil to dry out as the plant establishes itself during the first year. 

Eastern red columbine easily hybridizes with other species. Here are a few you can cultivate at home and potentially create your own hybrids in the process.

‘Corbett’

A 'Corbett' plant stands tall, its slender stems adorned with small, delicate leaves that flutter in the breeze. Among them, pale yellow flowers bloom, adding a subtle charm to the surrounding greenery of various plant species.
This showcases pale yellow flowers and exhibits resistance to leaf miners.

This dwarf columbine grows to one to two feet and has showy, pale yellow flowers. ‘Corbett’ is believed to have good leaf miner resistance and prefers cool nights to heat, unlike some other cultivars. 

‘Little Lanterns’

A 'Little Lanterns' plant showcasing vibrant red flowers. The delicate blooms dangle, adding a pop of color to the garden landscape, while the verdant foliage provides a striking contrast behind them.
The ‘Little Lanterns’ display red and yellow hues with subdued foliage.

Topping out at 10-12 inches, ‘Little Lanterns’ flowers are red and yellow like the species, with a bit less boldness and vigorous foliage

‘Canyon Vista’

A close-up of a red 'Canyon Vista'  flower, its petals soaking in the sunlight, radiating warmth and beauty. In the background, a gentle blur reveals leaves and budding flowers, creating a serene natural tapestry.
This cultivar grows up to 15 inches tall with blue-green foliage.

A prolific bloomer, this cultivar features bold orangish-red and yellow blooms with the standard blue-green foliage. It grows up to 15 inches tall.

Design Ideas

A wild columbine flower, adorned with striking red and yellow petals, basks gracefully under the radiant sunlight. In the background, a gentle blur unveils a picturesque scene of other sunlit flowers and verdant stems.
Surround newly seeded or young columbine plants with annuals to cover bare spots as you wait for blooms.

Plant annuals around newly seeded or young wild columbine to fill in the space while they establish. Once plants are mature, surround them with black-eyed Susans, milkweed, and pollinator patches of wildflowers.

This flower is perfect in areas with poor, sloped, or rocky soil, added to pollinator, rock, rain, and cottage gardens. It looks best in clumps of three or five and makes an excellent border plant. 

Medicinal Uses 

A vivid close-up captures a wild columbine flower and budding bloom on slender stems against a serene blue sky backdrop. The petals of the flower boast a rich hue of red, harmonizing with the yellow stamens nestled within its heart.
Native North Americans use the crushed seeds for medicinal purposes.

Native North Americans use crushed wild columbine seeds to remedy headaches and various plant parts to treat heart conditions, poison ivy, and fever. Aromatic seeds can be crushed and used as perfume. Caution should be taken as the Ranunculaceae contains toxic plants that wild columbine could be mistaken for. 

Complementary Pairings

Clusters of delicate white and pink phlox flowers create a vibrant display in the garden. The sunlight illuminates the petals, casting a gentle glow that highlights the intricate beauty of each bloom.
Pair early bloomers and shrubs like American Beautyberry with wild columbine.

Early bloomers like flowering phlox, wild ginger, ferns, and campanula pair well with wild columbine. Plant it near American Beautyberry or Witch Hazel, as they share similar sun requirements

Common Problems

This perennial is low-maintenance, but there are a few possible issues to be aware of

Pests

A brown duskywing butterfly with delicate markings rests on green leaves. The sunlight illuminates the tranquil scene, casting a warm glow on the brown duskywing butterfly and the lush greenery.
The columbine duskywing caterpillar relies on wild columbine leaves for sustenance.

Wild columbine leaves are the sole food source for the columbine duskywing (Erynnis lucilius) caterpillar, which is dark brown to almost black, with a black head. They can do quite a bit of damage by defoliating your plants but are important native prey in the local ecosystem. 

The butterfly looks more like a dark brown and black mottled moth, part of the “skipper” family due to its erratic flight pattern. Eggs are laid on the underside of leaves from April to June and July to September. 

Leafminers may cause cosmetic damage but don’t typically negatively affect the overall health of the plant. They’ll leave white trail marks on leaves in their wake as they mine through leaf tissue. The columbine sawfly (Pristiphora rufipes) is attracted more to hybrids, so wild columbine is generally safe. It looks similar to a small, waistless wasp, about ¼ inch long.

Neem oil and beneficial nematodes can control columbine aphids and borer. Wild columbine is toxic to most herbivores and isn’t bothered by deer or rabbits. 

Diseases

A close-up reveals the intricate, lobed shapes of wild columbine leaves. Noticeable white trails left by leaf miners snake across the foliage, indicating a presence of disease affecting the plant's health and vitality.
Sanitation and careful plant inspection are crucial for disease control.

Proper sanitation can help control diseases caused by fungi like gray mold, powdery mildew, and wilt, while some are spread and exacerbated by cool, humid weather. Remove dead leaves, spent flowers, and infected plants from the garden and use fungicides if you notice symptoms, as indicated on the label. 

Use only reputable sources for seeds and plants. Check for signs of yellowing, wilting, stem rot, or sclerotia before planting. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Why didn’t my plant bloom?

It may be its first year, and wild columbine won’t bloom until its second year. Be patient and get ready for next year’s show!

How do I stop my plants from spreading so much? 

Clear dropped seeds from the soil surface in the fall and deadhead spent flowers. Every few years, split the rootstock and discard or propagate a new plant to gift to a friend.

Final Thoughts

Wild columbine can be a long-living flowering perennial with the right care. Place it in a well-draining, loamy area with partial sun to shade, and you’ll enjoy it for years

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