Native Spring Wildflowers: Wild Columbine

Every season is captivating for me, but spring is especially so. I absolutely love the parade of wildflowers that begin blooming in late February/early March and continue as the weather in May and early June starts to heat up. One of my most favorites is blooming now, wild (or Eastern) columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). This member of the buttercup family is a tall, delicate-looking plant with deep green stems and fern-like leaves and red/yellow bell- or jewelry-shaped blossoms.

Range & Habitat

Several wild columbines bloom in a garden. These plants have bright red sepals with yellow pistils and stamens.
Wild columbine can be found blooming this time of year. You can see blooms like this at Glenwood Gardens. (Photo: Doug Stevenson)

Wild columbine can be found all over eastern North America from Nova Scotia to Florida and west to Texas. It prefers a rich, rocky forest habitat, often found growing on rocky outcrops or above creeks. Part shade and even full sun is fine with the plant, as long as the soil drains well. Wild columbine can be grown from seed or from a reputable nursery that has grown the plants from seed, but should never be transplanted straight from its natural site as the plants do not do well once taken out of the place they have grown accustomed to.

Appearance & Pollinators

The red parts seen here are actually the sepals of wild columbine, not the petals. (Photos: Amy Roell)

The tall, slender stems shoot up from lobed, delicate-looking leaves and hold the dangling blossoms. Each red and yellow flower has five long spurs that join together near the bottom of the flower where the pistils and stamens of the flower protrude. The nectar is held deep in the back of the spur, making these flowers perfect for the long tongues of hummingbirds, hawk moths, bumblebees and butterflies. The shorter-tongued insects like bees cannot reach the nectar unless they can chew a hole in the back of the flower! The red parts of the flower are actually the sepals, which are normally green, and the real petals of the flower are the yellow rounded edged petals near the center.

Post Blooming Season

A wild columbine flower. It has bright red petals with yellow pistils and stamens.
Wild columbine seed pods will change from a deep green to a purple color after the blooming season ends. (Photo courtesy Ragesoss/CC BY-SA 3.0)

After the blooming season is over, the seed pods will form and the leaves will change from a deep green to more of a purple color before disappearing. This plant grows well, as it loves to reseed itself! Wild columbine does very well in a rock garden, in dappled sunlight/shade, but will tolerate full sun and a variety of soils as long as it is well drained.

There are many cultivated varieties of columbine, but in my opinion, none match the wild columbine’s beauty or grace. There are also accounts of this plant being used as food, medicine and even love potions throughout history, but many of the plant’s parts contain toxins. It’s best to leave them to the hummingbirds, moths, butterflies and bumblebees and just enjoy the beautiful color they provide and the animals that visit them.

Amy Roell
Director of Programming