Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Wildflower Wednesday: Eastern Red Columbine

Eastern red columbine has bloomed just in time for migrating Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and that's no coincidence. Hummingbirds and certain flowers have co-adapted over millions of years to form a mutually beneficial relationship. Hummingbirds migrate thousands of miles annually and they're movement north typically coincides with the blooming of these preferred flowers. Eastern red columbine (trumpet honeysuckles, too) hold more nectar than other flowers and are irresistible to hummingbirds. Their co-adapted/mutually beneficial relationship is pretty cool. The long bill and tongue of these hummers fits into the throat of their preferred flowers to easily reach the nectar, and while feeding, grains of pollen spill onto the head of the bird and is carried to other columbines insuring pollination.

The bumblebee is another important pollinator and collects nectar and pollen for their larvae.  Some of our larger queen bumblebees, which are also active in early spring, have proboscises long enough to reach the nectar; others “cheat” (Eastern carpenter bees are known nectar robbers)  by tearing holes in the spurs to steal nectar without performing pollination services.

The co-adaption dance is marvelous and it's happening in gardens all over the Eastern United States.
If I ever capture a photo, I will be eternally appreciative.
red sepals, yellow-limbed petals, 5 distinctive red spurs and a mass of bushy yellow stamens
I love the unique and beautiful flowers of columbines. The flower is approximately 1.5 to 2 inches long and hangs downward from its stalk. Each flower has five petals, five petal-like sepals and strongly exerted stamens and styles. The petals are yellow at the rounded tip and red to purplish-red at the base of its rounded nectar-spur.

Wild columbines will hybridize with other columbines and you can have a variety of colors from the cross pollination. I only grow Aquilegia canadensis, so I haven't seen this, but, a friend had the cutest delicate pink columbine that she said was a natural cross.

Have you had this happen in your garden? It might be fun to cross pollinate them.

 Aquilegia canadensis is commonly known as wild columbine or eastern red columbine. It occurs naturally in rich rocky woods, north-facing slopes, cliffs, ledges, pastures, bogs, fens and roadside banks. It is very happy in our gardens and asks only for good drainage to survive wet winters.
growing in cracks in stone steps
Erosion is an issue in my sloping garden with its heavy winter rains and I am always tickled to see where columbine seeds germinate. I've scattered seeds for years and the rain must wash the seeds into the rock edges of my beds, because this is where they always seem happiest. They also pop up in every crack and crevice as seen in the above photo.
I've read that you can deadhead the plant for more blooms, but, I have never had much success with that. I let them go to seed, because I love free plants and I think the seedheads are equally delightful! You'll know they are ripe when the it splits open and shiny black pearls spill out. Collect and plant them where ever you want more lanterns to light up your garden.

Eastern  red columbine's bloom period overlaps with Golden ragwort and Phlox pilosa and I dubbed them the Happy Trinity of Clay and Limestone. In my metaphorical mindset, the trio is like a Mirepoix (cuisine)/holy trinity of ingredients and spices that when mixed together make the gardens colorful and tasty each spring. They are the garden's Spring flavor base and it gets even more delicious as Spring progresses. (Happy Flower Trinity)

 I love the way columbine intermingles with the pinks and purples throughout my garden, not to all tastes, but a delicious presentation none the less. With any successful garden recipe there are always plants that provide additional flavor and I will tweak the recipe a little each year, adding new ingredients, adjusting others. It's important to experiment and see what tasty combinations you can create.

I see a few spots that need some eastern red columbine...hoping it will be delicious next spring.

The Particulars

Botanical name: Aquilegia canadensis
Common Name: wild columbine or Eastern red columbine
Family: Ranunculaceae
Native Range: Eastern North America
Zone: 3 to 8
Height: 2.00 to 3.00 feet Spread: 1.00 to 1.50 feet
Bloom Time: April to May
Bloom Description: Light pink/yellow to blood red/yellow
Flower: Showy, Good Cut flower
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Water: Medium
Maintenance: Medium
Attracts: Bumblebees and the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird visit the flowers for nectar; bumblebees may also collect pollen for their larvae. Short-tongued Halictid bees collect pollen from the flowers, but they are less effective at cross-pollination. The larvae of various insects feed on Wild Columbine, including those of Erynnis lucilius (Columbine Duskywing), Papaipema leucostigma (Borer Moth sp.), Pristophora aquiligae (Columbine Sawfly), and several Phytomyza spp. (Leaf Miner Flies).(source)

giant leopard moth or eyed tiger moth (Hypercompe scribonia)

Tolerate: Rabbit, Deer, Drought, Dry Soil Garden locations
Comments: Foliage is toxic and it is little bothered by mammalian herbivores. Excellent garden plant, good in shade gardens, rock gardens, cottage gardens or naturalized areas. The light, airy texture of the stems and flowers combines well with a variety of early bloomers such as Wild Geranium, Foamflower, and Wild Ginger.

Welcome to Clay and Limestone and Wildflower Wednesday.  Thank you all for joining me as we celebrate and share our marvelous and beautiful wildflowers. I hope 2020 is the year we all plant more native wildflowers for the many critters that live in and visit our gardens. Let's be sure we celebrate them every day, not just WW. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom or not, you can still share them. Please leave a comment and add your name to Mr Linky so others can pop over to see your Wildflower Wednesday post.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. I like those columbine and have a few that will be blooming in my garden in a few weeks. This month, though, I'm featuring another wildflower, Solomon's Seal.

  2. Beautiful Columbines!
    I have no luck growing them, and I sure do admire yours!
    Happy Wildflower Wednesday!

  3. It's hard to pick favorites, but gosh, these spring ephemerals are pretty special, aren't they? Thanks for hosting! Happy WW, and Happy Earth Day, Gail!

  4. I love columbine. When they start blooming in my garden I know the hummbingbirds are close behind.

  5. Definitely one of my favorite wildflowers. It makes me think of red and yellow chandeliers. Only thing is it is so unpredictable in terms of where it will stay and where it will pop up unexpectedly.

  6. Still gardening for biodiversity over here.


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson