A couple years back, I took several trips to the Kaysville Botanical Center. I was taking a five-session Propagation Methods class from Dr. Larry Rupp as well as Richard Anderson, the Greenhouse Manager for the facility there. If you’ve never visited the Center, you’re missing out.
It’s an experimental station, botanical garden, trial garden, and educational center all rolled into one. Add the wetlands between the center and Interstate 15, and the Utah House, a demonstration house showing efficient use of materials, energy, and integration to the landscape, and you’ve got a real winning combination.
I digress. The interaction with Dr. Larry and Richard was extremely valuable. Richard showed us firsthand how many of the varieties we get to enjoy, from seed or from potted plants from the nursery, have been developed from varieties we find in nature that are well adapted to an area. The greenhouse was full of many low-water plants — all had been started there. If your mental picture right now is row upon row of pathetic looking little droopy plants or lots of spiny cactus, the wrong image has presented itself.
What we were looking at was vital, colorful, and diverse. The beauty came from a variety of characteristics, including leaf shape, height, bloom and plant color. Columbines fit right in that day and convinced me that these adaptable, low maintenance beauties deserved a place in our home’s flower palette.
Columbine plants are beautiful and found many places in the wild, where they do just fine without our intervention. They are found in temperate parts of the world, both in rocky and woodland areas. They are herbaceous perennials, meaning that the top growth dies back to ground level each year. They are relatively short-lived, about 3 years. However if spent blooms are not dead-headed, they readily self-seed. Dead-heading does encourage additional blooming and reduces reseeding.
If you don’t dead-head, there is a payoff from all that seed. The plants will have completed their life-cycle by rooting, growing, blooming and broadcasting seed. Once this happens, the plant will die. This isn’t problematic though. Simply allow moderate reseeding, and continually have new plants coming up. First year plants will establish themselves, and will commence blooming the second year.
Juvenile columbine plants are attractive in their own right, even before they begin to flower. They resemble clover, with deep green leaves. They look great in borders or along paths. When winter hits, the tops will die back, and come spring, they’ll come back to life and begin their show of blooms.
Columbines are also known as “Granny’s Bonnet” with the formal botanical name being Aquilegia. When you see the bloom shape, you can see why it could be called a bonnet. The botanical name is a bit more interesting as the Latin word “Aquila” means “eagle.” There is also a resemblance to this name because some of the appendages on the plant could look like the outstretched claws of an eagle. Even more interesting to me is that the common name of “columbine” is based on the Latin word “Columba” which is a reference to doves! Which is it? Doves or eagles? I suppose that the structure of the flowers could look like doves nestled together. Personally, I think it’s easier to see the “rabbit“ in Larkspur than to find the doves in columbine. (Larkspur is a topic for another day).
You can begin your adventure with columbine by either seeding or by setting out potted plants. The plants prefer partial shade, although they will do fine in rock gardens and more exposed areas once they get established. To get them settled in, they will need ongoing moderate moisture to get their roots to spread. Like many plants, they like mulch to keep the soil moist longer and the temperatures down. Once settled in, they are drought resistant and will flourish with a minimum of watering. Drip irrigation is a great way to both save water, and put small amount of water that the plants need right where it will do the most good — at the root zone.
Seeding can be done on the surface of a prepared seed bed with good amount of organic material blended in. Columbines can be direct seeded from early spring to mid-summer. The seed can be dusted with a fine coat of sifted compost or left to the open sky. They need sunlight to germinate and water ongoing with a gentle spray until they get established. If you do put out potted plants, you’ll need to plant them with the crown of the plant level with the soil surface. Just plant them at the depth they grew in, and you should be fine. Don’t bury them deep; they don’t like it. Place them one to three feet apart, depending on the variety.
Once they get going, you will find that new varieties will develop because they readily cross-pollinate. You’ll still have your original varieties, but the array of colors and shapes will expand. To keep your original varieties intact, you can divide them every other year or so.
To encourage ongoing blooming and healthy foliage, there’s a couple of things you can do. We’ve already mentioned deadheading. A little bit of effort in removing spent blooms will extend the blooming time. However, blooming takes resources. To keep the blooms coming, and to get the brightest colors you can get, fertilize your plants lightly two or three times during the growing/blooming season. Blooms require phosphorus, represented by the middle number on fertilizer packaging. You’ll need both nitrogen and phosphorus for this perennial plant. In most fertilizers, potassium (the last number) rides along, even if we don’t need a lot with our soils here. So, a good fertilizer you’ll likely find is a granulated (for slow release) 10-10-10 or 10-20-10. Gently rake in the fertilizer to get some soil coverage, and then water. This gets the fertilizer out of the sun, which tends to reduce the potency of nutrients rapidly.
If you’d like to see some of the beautiful varieties that you can get, simply do an online search using the term “columbine plants”. You’ll see a photo gallery appear, and I think you’ll be impressed! You’ll also find lots of resources for tips and techniques for successful columbine cultivation, as well as sources for seed. Don’t overlook what you can get right here in our area. Both Tooele Valley Nursery and Home Depot have potted columbine plants, and buying locally both supports our Valley’s economy as well as gives you an immediate introduction to this great plant.
Let’s close the loop on a couple of things. I can’t recommend the Kaysville Botanical Center too strongly! To see why I’m so enthusiastic about this great resource, you can visit their website at usubotanicalcenter.org. As the web address implies, the KBC is a Utah State University facility. The botanical center offers a robust roster of events, classes and facilities.
And, I mentioned Dr. Larry Rupp at the beginning of this article. I’m pleased to tell you that Dr. Larry will be coming to Tooele later this month on April 22 at 7 p.m.. He’s the featured speaker at the free public presentation hosted by the Tooele County Master Gardeners. Larry is a propagation expert, and he’ll be sharing some great insights on how you can start your own plants from what you or your friends already have. There are several methods, and Dr. Larry will give an entertaining and informative overview of how it’s done, and where you can go to get more tools and information. Larry will be visiting us from Ogden, so be sure to come and give him a great Tooele Valley welcome! You can get more information on the event from the Bulletin Board section here in the paper. It’ll be good to see my friend Larry again.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at email@example.com, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.