1. By: Jessie Keith

    Aquilegia canadensis 4

    Eastern columbine flowers in late spring.

    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

    Aquilegia canadensis 3

    Eastern red 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


    Colorado blue columbine (image by Zenhaus)

    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


    Long-spurred columbine (image by Cstubben)

    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.

    About Jessie Keith

    Plants are the lens Jessie views the world through because they’re all-sustaining. (“They feed, clothe, house and heal us. They produce the air we breathe and even make us smell pretty.”) She’s a garden writer and photographer with degrees in both horticulture and plant biology from Purdue and Michigan State Universities. Her degrees were bolstered by internships at Longwood Gardens and the American Horticultural Society. She has since worked for many horticultural institutions and companies and now manages communications for Sun Gro Horticulture, the parent company of Black Gold. Her joy is sharing all things green and lovely with her two daughters.

    Content Disclaimer:

    This site may contain content (including images and articles) as well as advice, opinions and statements presented by third parties. Sun Gro does not review these materials for accuracy or reliability and does not endorse the advice, opinions, or statements that may be contained in them. Sun Gro also does not review the materials to determine if they infringe the copyright or other rights of others. These materials are available only for informational purposes and are presented “as is” without warranty of any kind, express or implied, including without limitation warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, and non-infringement. Reliance upon any such opinion, advice, statement or other information is at your own risk. In no event shall Sun Gro Horticulture Distribution, Inc. or any of its affiliates be liable to you for any inaccuracy, error, omission, fact, infringement and the like, resulting from your use of these materials, regardless of cause, or for any damages resulting there from.