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This recent sunny spell has really begun to warm the soil bringing along the Spring flowers and in my garden the daffodils are now beginning to go over, making way for tulips, bluebells and one of my favourite flowers of late Spring, aquilegias which often appear so late in the season that they allow the garden to move seamlessly from Spring into Summer.
Aquilegias are one of the most diverse cottage garden plants when it comes to flower shape and colour making it easy to find the perfect variety for just about every garden whatever its aspect or soil type. The bees love them, too, which has to be a good thing given the problems they're currently facing.
Aquilegia vulgaris is a native of Northern Europe and masquerades under so many different names it's hard to choose just one. In Britain, if you aren't into your Latin, they're better known as Columbines or Granny's Bonnets and the latter name is pretty obvious when you view the flowers from the side because they resemble nothing so much as an old fashioned poke bonnet. There are about 70 or more species of aquilegia and the hybrids developed and offered by seed companies are many and varied.
The best way to grow these delightful plants initially is from seed which is easy and if sown early enough, the plants will flower in their first season though probably slightly later than normal. You'll only need to sow the seed once, however, because once they're established, aquilegia will self-seed everywhere. These plants are very promiscuous!
Sow the seed indoors from March onwards and once the seedlings are established, transplant either into larger pots and harden off outside or plant straight into the ground where you want them to flower. The seed can also be sown in the Autumn and over-wintered in a cold frame which will give them a head start the following year.
The foliage shape is similar in all varieties and it's decorative enough to enhance the garden long after the flowers have gone and provide a backdrop to later summer flowers. The leaves are flattened fans and trefoil shaped. They're quite thin and delicate allowing them to blow about in the slightest breeze which gives the whole plant a light and airy appearance with the flowers blooming on taller stems above the leaves. The leaf colour can be almost as varied as the flowers. It's more generally a light to mid-green but some varieties offer a range of greens from almost acid yellow-green to a much darker shade and there are even some with variegation as well.
As for the flowers, the variety is almost infinite. This isn't just confined to flower colour, which ranges from purest white to almost black and all shades in between including bi-coloured varieties, but the hybrid flower shapes on offer are almost as varied. And once your plants start to cross-pollinate, you'll be discovering new shapes and colours every season. If you're more of a plant purist and want to retain your original flower type, you'll have to deadhead your plants to prevent them interbreeding.
Some of the main flower types on offer from seed companies are hybrids of aquilegia canadensis, which is the long-spurred North American variety; aquilegia vulgaris, our native variety; and Nora Barlow, a multi-petalled species which looks totally different from most other plants in this genus. Once allowed to interbreed, however, your garden will be filled with a profusion of plants in all shapes, colours and sizes. Every season will bring you new surprises.
This can be just about anywhere. These plants do best in a slightly dappled shade as our native variety is a woodland plant but they'll thrive just as well in full sun or even deeper shade and as there's also an alpine species, if you garden high above sea level, there's even a variety for high altitude gardeners. These plants aren't fussy about soil type either and can cope with any ground from stony and sandy right through to heavy clay, making them just about one of the easiest plants around.
Aquilegias can survive quite a bit of drought, too, not that that's been much of a problem for a year or two in this country!
In a good year, the flowering season lasts about four or five weeks.
Pests and Diseases:
Most gardening books list aphids, leaf miners and caterpillars as potential enemies of the aquilegia along with powdery mildew as another possible problem but I've been growing these plants organically for well over thirty years without resorting to any pesticides and my aquilegias have never succumbed to any of these. In fact, other plants in my garden can be infested with aphids and my aquilegias have remained completely untouched.
I may be biased in my opinion of these beautiful cottage garden perennials but I think they enhance any garden. Some people may find the fact that they self-seed so readily something of an issue, especially if you want to keep one particular variety unsullied by cross-pollination but early deadheading can solve that problem. Aquilegias aren't very long lived plants, probably only lasting about five years but when they self-seed themselves so readily, there will always be new plants to follow.
One thing I should mention is that hybrid varieties may not come true from seed and many of them revert to type. When cross-pollinated, the colours can sometimes be pretty boring, largely an indeterminate pink but it's easy enough to pull these up, and amongst the duds will be some lovely and unique variations in just about every colour of the rainbow in single and double flower form.
A packet of aquilegia seeds will cost anywhere from around £1.50 for 100 seeds but as you'll never need to buy another packet, that's quite a bargain.