It seems strange that two birds as different as the eagle (in Latin, aquila) and the dove (columbus) should both give their name to the same flower - the aquilegia, or columbine. The petals are supposed to resemble the outspread wings of these birds, and the spurs their arched necks and heads. Whichever name you use, this genus offers some of the most garden-worthy and decorative of plants.
All aquilegias have wonderful foliage that emerges early in the year, creating tuffets of bright green among the sharp verticals of daffodils and other bulbs. They are among the most telling of springtime plants, both for foliage and for flowers.
Aquilegia longissima is an exquisite flower. Its petals are a pale, soft, buttery yellow, and its spurs - of a deeper yellow, and sometimes up to 6in (15cm) long - are swept elegantly back, giving the whole flower the look of a ship's figurehead.
Like so many of the most desirable aquilegias, A. longissima comes from the New World, where it grows wild in the mountains of the southernmost states right down to Mexico. Long-spurred hybrids have been developed from it and from several other American species: its close cousin A. chrysantha; A. formosa, which has dainty red-and-yellow flowers; and A. coerulea, a graceful blue-and-white columbine with finely divided "maidenhair" leaves, which the State of Colorado has adopted as its emblem.
The genus aquilegia is widespread in the northern hemisphere: Europe and Asia, as well as America, have their own columbines. Many of the North American species are short-lived, but they can be grown easily from seed.
Most species come true from seed if they are isolated from others, but the whole family has a reputation for promiscuity - incest, even. In gardens where the native Aquilegia vulgaris dominates, forms of varying colour and shape can occur. It is these self-made hybrids that have inspired the epithet "grannies' bonnets".
One of the oldest of these forms is A. vulgaris var stellata 'Nora Barlow', named after Charles Darwin's grand-daughter, but recorded much earlier - in the 17th century, in fact, as the "Rose Columbine". Its thickly clustered petals are soft pink, green and white.
The most simple and graceful of A. vulgaris hybrids have A. alpina as their other parent. Predominantly deep blue but occasionally pink, white or various shades of purple, these have come to be known by the name 'Hensol Harebell'. They have full, comely flowers, stately deportment, and a strong constitution.
A. alpina is, as the name suggests, from the Alps, where it grows in shady woodland margins and among rocks. Found in the same region, but growing in meadows rather than higher up the slopes, is an aquilegia with almost black flowers, A. atrata. This is probably one of the parents used to create the fashionable "black-and-white" hybrids, two of which, A. vulgaris 'Magpie' and A. vulgaris 'William Guiness', are widely available as seed strains.
From further east, in the Himalayan foothills of Pakistan, northern India and Kashmir comes A. fragrans, one of the commonest columbines. Its pallid, creamy flowers, sometimes washed in pale blue, have a delicious pineapple-like scent. This variety lasts only two or three years in the garden and seed from cultivated plants is often contaminated after cross-pollination with other columbines. The resultant plants often lose the fabulous scent but, thankfully, plant explorers and botanists fairly frequently re-introduce unadulterated seed collected from the wild.
Only a few Far Eastern aquilegias are in general cultivation. A. viridiflora is a small, dainty plant, with numerous nodding flowers of chocolate-brown and mossy green. It is best grown in an elevated position, such as a raised bed, where its delicious perfume and subtle demeanour can be enjoyed at close quarters.
In Japan, A. flabellata and its numerous hybrids have long been cultivated, although the species is unknown in the wild. Hybrids like A. flabellata 'Ministar' and A. flabellata 'Nana Alba' are consistently popular among alpine enthusiasts. Its small, stocky plants are loaded with flowers, making up for its lack of grace.
Aquilegias lend themselves to cottagey or semi-wild settings. Most relish dappled shade. They love deep, rich soil. Most garden varieties do not resent clay, but alpine types prefer well-drained loam. When planting, work in extra humus: old muck or garden compost is best. Mulch with the same material.
Remove seed heads before they disperse their contents, otherwise the parent plant may be crowded out by its own offspring. Save the seed and sow it fresh if you want more plants elsewhere.
Try A. longissima contrasted against the darkly dramatic foliage of Cimicifuga simplex var. simplex Atropurpurea Group or in combination with pale-lemon buttercups and golden grasses. Plant blue A. alpina as it grows in the wild, with Geranium sylvaticum and trollius. A. formosa and A. canadensis, both of which are soft red and yellow, look at home with Primula cockburniana, a small asiatic primula with vermilion flowers.
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