By: Jessie Keith
The elegant spurs of columbine (Aquilegia spp.) trail behind the spring blooms like the tail of a comet. Each projected spur is in fact an elongated, tubular nectary filled with nectar for a variety of visiting pollinators, from hummingbirds to bees to hawkmoths.
Columbine are unique in that many of the 60+ species are just as pretty as the many hybrids offered at garden centers. Aquilegia comes from the Latin name, Aquila, which translates to “eagle” and refers directly to the flower’s talon-like spurs. All species in the genus hail from the North Temperate regions of the world and most bloom in late spring or early summer. All attract pollinators of one variety or another, but many of the species are specially adapted to certain groups of pollinators—making them very desirable for pollinator gardens.
Their delicate, spurred flowers come in several colors that tend to dictate the primary pollinators they attract, though spur length, nectar sweetness and levels, among other factors, also influence pollinator attraction.
Hummingbirds: Red- and Orange-flowered Columbine
As a rule, red flowers attract hummingbirds; research as shown that this is also the case with columbine flowers. Beautiful wildflowers, such as the eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis, 2’), with its tall stems of nodding red flowers, or the western red columbine (A. elegantula, 1-3’), with its more linear nodding, shooting-star flowers of fire orange-red, are sure to draw hummingbirds in spring and early summer. Hummingbirds flying through western desert regions will likely visit the blooms of the Arizona columbine (A. desertorum, 1-2’) with its many small, red flowers with shorter spurs. All of these flowers have spurs that hold lots of extra sweet nectar to fulfill the needs of visiting hummingbirds.
Hawkmoths & Bees-Violet-blue-flowered Columbine
Many columbine species have flowers that come in combinations of violet-blue and white. These flowers tend to be most attractive to both hawkmoths and native bees. (Hawkmoths are a group of moths easily distinguished by their hummingbird-like hovering flight patterns and long tongues adapted for nectar gathering.) Columbine with long spurs, such as the Colorado blue columbine (A. coerulea, 1-3’), are most attractive to long-tongued hawkmoths. Smaller-flowered species, such as the alpine Utah columbine (A. scopulorum, 6-8”) and small-flowered columbine (A. brevistyla, 1-3’) with their blue and white blooms, are better adapted to bee pollinators.
Hawkmoths- Yellow-flowered Columbine
Some of the most impressively long spurs are found on columbine with ethereal yellow flowers that glow in the evening light. Most are adapted to hawkmoth pollination. One of the prettiest for the garden is the southwestern golden columbine (A. chrysantha, 3’) with its big starry flowers and long, long spurs of gold. When in full bloom, from spring to summer, the plants literally glow with beautiful blossoms. Another big-spurred beauty from the southwest is the long-spurred columbine (A. longissima, 1-3’) with its 4-6” long spurs. The upward-facing blooms are paler yellow than A chrysantha and bloom from mid to late summer. Both species look delicate but are surprisingly well-adapted to arid weather conditions.
As a rule, columbine grow best in full to partial sun and soil with good to moderate fertility and sharp drainage. Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost is a great soil addition for these garden flowers. They don’t require heavy fertilization and should be protected from sun during the hottest times of the day. After flowers, plants often die back or develop a ragged look, so be sure to surround them by other full perennials with attractive foliage and flowers that will fill the visual gaps left by these plants. Good compliments are tall phlox, coneflowers, bluestar, and milkweeds.
Columbine are great choices for pollinator gardens, so it’s no wonder that sourcing species is surprisingly easy. High Country Garden sells a western species collection, in addition to the dwarf eastern columbine, and many others. Moreover, columbine self-sow and naturally hybridize-making them truly enjoyable garden flowers for gardeners we well as our favorite pollinators.