• David Salman

Beauty from the Wild

Gardening with Wildflower Columbine Species


By David Salman:

The Colorado blue columbine, Aquilegia caerula, grows best at elevations above 7000'. On the Front Range plant in shade where the soil stays cool and moist. Photo: Jane Shellenberger

While I would wager that most residents of our 50 states couldn’t name their state flower, I can say with much greater confidence that Coloradans are very familiar with theirs; Aquilegia caerulea, the Colorado Blue Columbine. This stunning blue and white wildflower is found growing in scattered locations across the western 2/3 of the state at mid- to high elevations.


Colorado is also home to at least four other species as well as a few additional subspecies and natural hybrids that often occur between several of the state’s species. Growing best in partial to full shade in seasonally moist soils, their delicate looking foliage and unique spurred flowers attract a wide range of pollinators including hummingbirds, butterflies, moths, native bees and bumblebees. In fact, Columbine grow all across the Northern Hemisphere, with approximately 60 to 70 species to be found in the higher elevation mountains of Europe, Asia, Japan and North America. In my gardens I focus primarily on the wildflower species of the Western U.S.

Aquilegia desertorum grows best in morning sun with afternoon shade.

Maintaining a Long Lived Colony of Plants

Plant them into a well drained, compost enriched soil that stays moderately moist. They like full to part sun at elevations over 7,000 ft. and partial to full shade at elevations below that. Provide regular irrigation to keep the soil moderately moist. For gardeners out on the plains east of I-25, protection is important to protect plants from drying spring winds.


Columbine are generally considered to be short-lived perennials, with individual plants living only two to three years. But Columbine are willing re-seeders that can form long-lived colonies in areas that are to their liking. Indeed, I have collected seeds of the lovely golden columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) for decades in my hometown of Santa Fe, NM (7,000 ft. elevation) where they have been planted in a couple of commercial office parks. Here, these plants have found a permanent home, ebbing and flowing as they re-seed around the shaded north and east sides of the two story buildings.


The best way to enjoy Columbine is to plant only non-hybrid species that establish colonies. They come true from seed and the flowers maintain the same brightly colored flowers like the parent plants. Most commonly sold Columbines are hybrids. When these hybrids re-seed themselves over several generations, regardless of their original flower color, the flowers of their seedlings will evolve to a muddy shade of yellow.

Plant Placement to Limit Cross Pollination

To keep your Columbine colonies true-to-type, I recommend planting individual beds with only one species in groups of 3 or more; and be sure there is some distance between plantings of different Columbine species. Separate the species by at least 30 to 40 ft. such that they are not visible to each other. Placing them on the north and east sides of buildings, on opposite sides of large, dense shrubs or different sides of the house will minimize cross pollination by keeping pollinators from moving directly between different species. But stay alert to the occasional hybrids that revert to dull yellow and pull them, leaving only the true colored plants to re-seed themselves.


Insect Pests – Aphids

Aphids are the primary pest of the genus. Be on the lookout for spring aphids on the first flush of flowers and flower buds. A small but hard stream of water from a hose end will wash off most of them. Or a couple of applications of organic insecticidal soap/pyrethrum mix when you first see them will control them. Don’t worry if you still have a few aphids because visiting hummingbirds eat them as a nourishing protein source.


But never, ever use systemic insecticides!! These insidious chemicals poison the nectar and will kill any hummingbirds and other insect pollinators that feed on the contaminated flowers.

Plant Care

• Mulching: Columbine benefit greatly from mulching to keep their roots cool in the summer months. Apply an inch thick layer of a coarse textured mulch like composted bark, composted leaves or other soil building mulch material in the spring. Replenish in the fall after you’ve done your fall fertilizing as recommended below.

• Fertilizing: These wildflowers are modest in their needs for supplemental nutrients. So fertilize once a year in the fall by topdressing the soil around the plants with non-chemical fertilizers like a half and half mix of Yum Yum Mix and good quality compost. Earthworm castings and alfalfa meal are another good combination.

Recommended Wildflower Species for High Elevations (above 7,000 ft.)

Aquilegia caerulea (Colorado Blue Columbine) The official state flower is best grown at higher elevations (above 7,000 ft.) for long term success. It can be planted along the Front Range, in cool shade on the north side of a house where the soil stays cool and moist. Keep well mulched.

Aquilegia elegantula (Shooting Star Columbine) – this is similar in appearance to the Desert Columbine with its orange and yellow flowers. But it is best planted by gardeners above 7,000 ft. as it needs modest daytime temperatures and cool summer nights. Grow in dappled shade or full morning sun.

Aquilegia jonesii (Alpiine Columbine) – a rare alpine native species that is only recommended for experienced rock gardeners. A tiny plant that wedges itself into scree above timberline, it blooms with a bouquet of small blue and white flowers held just above the foliage.

Golden Columbine, Aquilegia chrysantha, is long-blooming and showy - excellent for first time Columbine growers.

Recommended Wildflower Species for Foothills and Front Range (below 7,000 ft.)

Aquilegia eximia (Serpentine Columbine) – a relatively unknown species from northern California, this cold hardy giant makes a stunning garden plant because of its large size and summer-long display of huge, king’s crown-like scarlet-orange and yellow flowers. More tolerant of heavy soils than many Columbine.

Aquilegia aff. longissima (Swallowtail® Columbine) is a spectacular variety that I originally grew from seed collected from a colony living in a remote south-central Arizona canyon. The huge bi-colored yellow and light yellow flowers have long, graceful 3½ to 4 inch long spurs sweeping back from the face of the flowers. Swallowtail’s foliage is blue or blue-green which adds to the plants overall beauty.

Aquilegia desertorum (Arizona Columbine) is a long blooming species from the mid-elevation Mogollon Rim in central Arizona. It and covers itself with petite orange and yellow flowers for many months in spring and summer. It’s best grown with morning sun and afternoon shade. Too much shade and it won’t bloom well.

Aquilegia chrysantha (Golden Columbine) – native to shaded canyons and ravines of southern New Mexico and much of Arizona, this outstanding species is long blooming and makes long lived colonies when happy. The brilliant yellow flowers are very showy and light up partially shaded beds that it likes best. And excellent choice for first time Columbine growers.


David Salman is Chief Horticulturist of High Country Gardens