Self-sowing seductors: There is nothing staid about Granny’s Bonnet — and they reproduce prolifically
- Nigel Colborn says Granny’s Bonnets, also called columbines, are delightful
- British gardening expert reveals almost all columbines are easy to grow
- He says columbines tend to be short-lived but will self-sow copiously
Some of spring’s greatest floral delights are provided by Granny’s Bonnets. Also called columbines, their intricate flowers and lacy foliage have made them garden favourites.
Were you able to drive through northern France this week, you would see wild blue columbines growing in clusters along sheltered road verges.
In Britain, wild plants are rarities. But after centuries of cultivation, there are enchanting garden varieties for every taste.
Their flowers resemble groups of perching doves. Columba is Latin for dove hence ‘columbine’. Ironically, the botanical name, Aquilegia refers to eagles because the petal tops also resemble eagle talons.
Striking: Aquilegia vulgaris has bonnet-shaped flowers and grows in clumps
American columbines are strikingly different. Their colours are hotter, with vivid reds and yellows. Their flowers often have remarkably long spurs.
Both characteristics gave plant breeders an entirely new ball game for hybridising. Thanks to them, we now have magnificent garden hybrids as well as several wild species, each with its own charm.
Almost all columbines are easy to grow. Though perennial, they tend to be short-lived but will self-sow copiously.
You can divide mature plants, preferably in early spring, but results are mixed. Growing from seed is much more reliable.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
Flowers of common columbine, A. vulgaris, are mainly blue, white or pink. But centuries of cultivation has broadened that range from darkest violet to flushed pearl.
Aberrant flower shapes include doubles with shaving-brush flowers or others resembling small clematis. Barlow Blue is a good double as is Winky Rose.
If you allow columbines to selfsow, remove plants with disappointingly dirty colours or ugly shapes. You must be ruthless to keep your colony pure.
Thanks to wild American species, we also have magnificent, summer blooming columbines with intricate flowers in warm, bright colours.
The best seed-raised strains will have large, long-spurred, bi-coloured flowers in red and white, blue and white, yellow and cream and so on. You can browse for plants online or start them from seed for next year.
Among mixed, bright colours, Parkers (jparkers.co.uk) offers packs of long-spurred, manycoloured varieties at affordable prices. Colour combinations include blues or reds with yellows or cream.
Wild columbine species are also lovely for gardens and most are easy to grow. The most sensational, Siberian A. viridiflora, has flowers in after-dinner mint colours of chocolate and pale green. Another dwarf species, A. flabellata has pretty blue and white flowers.
When living as a student in the U.S., I lost my heart to the wildflower Aquilegia Formosa. Low-growing, it has brick red spurs contrasting with lemon flower centres.
Though technically perennials, columbines are usually shortlived. Some may last a couple of years, others go longer, but most will freely self sow. That ensures new plants. But like most shortterm perennials, they can be over-productive. So police that by thinning out unwanted seedlings while they’re still small.
With multicolour mixes, don’t just select the strongest growing plants. Those with slightly less vigour might have more interestingly coloured flowers.