Columbines belong to the genus Aquilegia. The name is derived from the Latin aquila which means eagle, a possible reference to the hooked spurs of some species appearing like the claws of that bird. Columbines are members of the Buttercup Family, Ranunculaceae. Florally, the flowers have 5 petal-like sepals that are often held at right angles to the rest of the floral parts. The sepals are often the most conspicuous part of the flower. The 5 petals have two parts; the short, rounded parts that point forward from the sepals and enclose the stamens and pistils, and the nectary spur that points away from the sepals. The spur may be hooked, straight or practically non-existent. The stamens may be shorter than (termed inserted), equal too or extend (termed exerted) beyond the petals. These floral features will be important to separate the various species which are about to be described.
Columbines are native to North Temperate Zones, especially mountain settings, although a few grow in lowland woodlands. The most common species is A. vulgaris, a European species that grows in woodlands and meadows. Many gardeners grow hybrids of A. vulgaris, which are available in a rainbow of colours and grow 60-90 cm, making them indispensable in the mid-range of herbaceous borders.
However, of the worlds 65 or so species of columbine, there are many alpine types that are quite dwarf, making them suitable for the front of the border, rock garden settings or alpine troughs. These dwarfs are not nearly so prompt to self-seed all over like A. vulgaris, although some can self-seed to a certain degree. These alpine types will grow in full sun or part-shade. All require well-drained soils but with a few exceptions, most are not too fussy about soil pH. Water regularly during dry weather as none are drought-tolerant. Columbines, as a rule, are late spring-early summer bloomers. Many of the species about to be described are not available at local nurseries, but are often found among offerings of mail-order alpine specialist nurseries or as seed from seed exchanges. However, a word of warning; columbines are promiscuous and will hybridize with blooming neighbours so seeds from exchanges may end up being hybrids. If growing from seed, provide the sown seeds with a stratification period of 4-6 weeks to simulate a winter. For the purpose of this article I will describe those species that mature at 30 cm or shorter. All of these species are hardy to USDA zone 5 and several are hardy to zone 3.
Within North America, most of the dwarf alpine columbines are native to the mountains of western USA, especially Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. The creme-de-la-creme among these American dwarfs is A. jonesii, native to limestone cliffs from Wyoming to Alberta. This is the most dwarf of all columbines, growing to only 8 cm. It is also one of the most difficult to grow outside of its native environs since plants need heat, low humidity, high light levels and very limey soil. The true species has solitary, deep blue, straight but short spurs and outward to upward-facing flowers that sit among the very divided bluish foliage. Warning: many so called A. jonesii in cultivation are actually hybrids between it and the similar but easy to grow A. saximontana. The latter species is native to Colorado and forms blue-grey mounds 15-20 cm. The flowers are nodding, with blue sepals and white petals, providing a bicoloured effect. The spurs are hooked. The other blue alpine columbine of the western USA is A. scopulorum, essentially a dwarf 10 cm version of A. coerulea. This species is native to the high elevations of Utah and Nevada, growing on limestone substrates. Its flowers face upwards to outwards, have light blue sepals and light blue to white petals with long, straight spurs. Yet another similar species is A. laramiensis, a native of Wyoming. It forms a 20 cm mound of bluish foliage similar to the above species but has nodding, white flowers with hooked spurs. The above species have stamens that are the same length as the petals.
Above: Aquilegia saximontana, A. scopulorum and A. laramiensis
Aquilegia canadensis is a common woodland wildflower in eastern North America but while quite dainty, they generally grow 45 cm or more. However, there is a dwarf version called ‘Nana’ with typical red-sepaled/yellow petaled flowers on a 25 cm plant. The cultivar ‘Corbett’s’ is also dwarf but has pure yellow flowers. These both have straight spurs and exerted stamens. Other dwarf, straight-spurred, exerted stamen species include A. desertorum, A. elegantula and A. chaplinei. Aquilegia desertorum, a native to high elevations of north-central Arizona, appears similar to A. canadensis with bicoloured red and yellow flowers but plants are under 30 cm and have foliage only half the size of A. canadensis yet spurs nearly twice the length. While the species name might suggest this plant hails from deserts, it is in fact, found in shaded seepage areas. Aquilegia elegantula is also an A. canadensis look-alike native to forests from Utah and western Colorado south to New Mexico. It grows 15-30 cm and has flowers whose stamens barely extend beyond the petals and have sepals only half the width as those produced on A. canadensis. Aquilegia chaplinei is essentially a more dwarf, 30 cm version of A. chrysantha, the popular yellow long-spurred columbine. It is native to western Texas and eastern New Mexico, growing along mountain streams.
Above: Aquilegia desertorum and A. chaplinei
Europe also has a few dwarf alpine columbines and again, blue is the dominant colour. Aquilegia pyrenaica is native to the Pyrenees of France and Spain. Plants form mounds 10-30 cm with dark bluish foliage, dark violet-blue flowers with straight to slightly hooked spurs and inserted stamens. The variety discolor has violet-blue sepals and white petals with slightly hooked spurs on 15 cm plants. Growing among the Maritime Alps of France and Italy is a similar species called A. bertolonii. It forms a mound of leaves 15-25 cm tall and relatively large violet-blue flowers with straight spurs and inserted stamens. Aquilegia dinarica and A. kitaibelii are both native to Croatia and Bosnia and grow under 25 cm with downy, grey-green foliage. The former species has blue sepals and white petals with strongly hooked spurs while the latter is bluish-violet with only slightly hooked spurs. Alas, both of these beauties appear to be rarely available in North America. However, A. ottonis, a Grecian species, is available. It has beautiful light blue-grey foliage with light-blue sepals, white petals, strongly hooked spurs and slightly exerted stamens. Plants are variable from 15-40 cm.
Above: Aquilegia bertolonii, A. ottonis and A. dinarica
Finally we come to the Asian dwarf columbines. The most popular is by far is the Japanese species A. flabellata. The true species is not at all dwarf but var. pumila is 20-30 cm while ‘Ministar’ and ‘Rosea’ are generally under 15 cm. These have rather thick, grey-green foliage and somewhat nodding flowers with short, strongly hooked spurs and inserted stamens. The flowers on var. pumila and ‘Ministar’ have blue sepals and white petals while ‘Rosea’ has pink sepals and white petals. Also from Japan is A. buergeriana. The straight species reaches 50-80 cm but the cultivar ‘Calimero’ is a dwarf 15-20 cm. Its flowers have reddish-violet sepals and yellow petals with short, straight spurs and inserted stamens. The last dwarf is A. ecalcarata, formerly known as Semiaquilegia ecalcarata. This dainty species is native to central and western China. The flowers on this species are spurless. The small nodding flowers are purple and have inserted stamens. The flowers are held at the ends of multi-branching wiry stems held between 10-60 cm (usually under 30 cm) above the fine foliage.
Above: Aquilegia flabella 'Rosea' (X2), 'Ministar'
Above: Aquilegia buergeriana 'Calimero' (X2) and A. ecalcarata
It is worth searching for some of these dwarf columbines as their foliage is generally attractive and the flowers are among the most exotic-looking of any alpine plants. Occupying such a small space means you can pack a number of them into a small area.
(I would like to thank Ally_UT for use of her pictures of A. scopulorum, laramiensis and dinarica....they helped tremendously to fill out the article!)