A few days ago I got a delivery of 3 Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) from Bluestone Perennials. This was a fine thing, as I love Wild Columbine. However, I couldn’t remember making this order, nor could I remember where I had intended to put the plants.

Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis
Columbine in the front foundation bed.

But I was not about to look some gift plants in the mouth. Well, not really gift plants, but unexpected. Most likely these were back-ordered during the Great Covid Garden Panic when sellers of seeds and plants were running out of practically everything. Better to show up now than never.

However, this still left me with the problem of location. Whatever I had originally intended was long forgotten. And one thing about Wild Columbine, at least in my experience: you never know where it’s going to make itself at home. (I’m talking here about the eastern, red-and-yellow Wild Columbine. Perhaps other species are more predictable.)

Columbine close up.

Over the years I’ve planted Wild Columbine in several places which seemed to meet their basic requirements: part shade to shade with medium moisture. In each of these locations, they tend to thrive, but only for a couple of years. Then they disappear – only to pop up in some other unexpected place. But even in places of their own choosing, they are short-lived. At this point the garden is, sadly, a Columbine-free zone.

Why is this? I’ve read that this Columbine prefers alkaline soil, which is certainly not a problem here. Also that they prefer soil that leans to dry, which is actually not consistent with what I’ve observed. The Ladybird Johnson Wildlife Center says that they prefer soil that is not too rich. Maybe that’s the problem. When WIld Columbine grows in our garden, it tends to grow big, up to 3 or 4 feet – but it doesn’t stick around in subsequent years.

Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis
Wild Columbine

In any case, my solution to not remembering where to put the Columbines was to split them up. One went to a place that was a little shadier, one to a spot that was a little drier, and one to a spot that was more wet. And now we’ll see what happens.

59 Comments on “Wild Columbine Keeps Me Guessing”

  1. I’m with Lisa — I thought of the Three Bears, too! I’ve seen Columbine in the woods a couple of times, but never in a garden here. Now that I think of it, I saw it wild in the hill country alongside a limestone creek, so that suggests something about the conditions it likes. That’s also the only time I’ve gotten a decent photo of a sphinx moth; apparently the adore Columbine, so if yours do well, you might get lucky and have some of those pollinators around.

  2. Ha, ha – our numerous self-seeded wild columbines are flourishing this fall (but no unexpected flowers). We certainly don’t have alkaline soil here, nor did we in our South Carolina garden (the source of our plants here in the mountains of Western North Carolina).

    Now, I’m trying to remember if we brought seeds to Quebec (probably not), but I think I just deleted images that had them, as I’m sorting through photos.

  3. So happy to read your blog again. Hope you are doing well. I’ve read that columbine likes to grow in disturbed soil and it is not long-lived but reseeds (if it wants to). My natives disappeared but the blue that I inherited comes back in different spots every year. I try to collect some seeds when mature so i can put some where i wish they would grow. Sporadic success.

  4. My native columbine (like yours from Bluestone Perennials) has always been a fail safe plant in my garden. It self-seeds and pops up in all sorts of unexpected places. But I’ve not been without several plants somewhere and I haven’t paid attention to particulars of the soil make-up. Just lucky, I guess!

  5. I love this plant too and my experience has been the same. In our mini-mini meadow laster spring, it was filled with Columbine and then this year, we only had a few. Hoping for more seedlings next year. Wise to plant them in several spots!

  6. Wild columbine are a favorite of mine too, but I can’t believe how big yours get! That’s amazing. Mine stay small, only last a few years, then disappear. But that’s true of the other native columbines, the yellow ones, in my garden. I had some seedlings at the end of spring, but with our challenging summers, I never transplant them then. I’m hoping some will pop up soon, so that I can move them to places I want them, because you’re correct there: they go where THEY want, not where I want! Lovely photos!

  7. Those are so pretty! Splitting them up is a great idea. I have a few very pretty burgundy columbines that popped up out of nowhere too & they seem to have made themselves at home in a neglected bit of the garden. The purposefully planted ones from last year, however – I don’t recall them coming up at all this year. I’m thinking I may grow some from seed this time round & see if I have better luck next year.

  8. Beautiful photos of lovely columbines!

    Some years ago I thought that a certain patch would be soon covered by spontaneous columbines. I also bought some new ones, e.g. an Aquilegia canadensis, and received seeds of beautiful varieties from a fellow blogger. Alas, they haven’t been doing well at all. Had also a disease I hadn’t seen before.
    Perhaps I should have irrigated them during the hot, dry periods, even though they grow in a shaded spot.
    Next year I’ll try to dedicate more time to them.

    Thank you for the interesting post. Stay well!

  9. I am surprised that you have difficulty growing columbine. In my garden it pops up everywhere. I have had a sea of it one year and a just a few popups other years. It is worth trying to find a spot for it. You must have much more rich soil than what is in my garden. Mine get 2′ usually, including blooms I would say.

  10. One year the volunteer columbine made my front yard look like a fairy walk – it was everywhere, growing out of every nook and cranny it could find. Lately, nothing except for a few random stalwarts. I hope to develop a shade garden (with more than just hostas) on the north side of the house, so maybe I will plant some there on purpose and see what it does. Good luck with yours!

  11. Hello Jason .. never look a gift plant in the mouth is so right ! LOL
    I have had this one before, but sadly it just seemed to disappear .. you are doing the wise move of planting them in two different places .. then you can judge where it really seems to thrive better.
    The days are getting colder and shorter .. I have many many bulbs coming so I have lots of prep work to do .. our busiest times seem to be Spring and Fall .. both season of different kinds of hope I think.
    I hope you are feeling as well as possible.
    Take care
    Joy

  12. Hello Jason, I’m planning for a patch of Aquilegia in the garden once I’ve made the final border but it will be more the cultivated varieties. It’s interesting to read that they grow large an a little unwieldy in rich soil as this is what we have and have seen with the inherited self-seeded ones scattered about the garden. We had a beautiful sunshine yellow one that grew to four feet. We cut a snapped stem for the kitchen window and it lasted for weeks and dried gracefully, keeping its colour. I just need to find out what it was called and try and get more seed of it.

  13. Sounds like a good solution. It will be fun to see where the columbines appear next spring. I’ve seen the same thing occur in the field~this seems to be a short-lived perennial even in the wild. Sadly, my garden is also a columbine-free zone as well, something I aim to rectify next year.

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