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Aquilegias

John Drake grows 150 different Aquilegias in his National Collection. Here he describes their history and highlights his favourites.

Over forty years ago Philip Munz wrote an article for an American publication, Gentes Herbarium, entitled Aquilegia - The Cultivated and Wild Columbine. He describes some 254 separate species and named hybrids. Sadly today only a few Aquilegia are listed in seed catalogues.

Over the past ten years I have been collecting both species and hybrid aquilegias. This is in order that future generations of gardeners will be able to grow and enjoy these plants. My collection is now the National Collection for Aquilegia under the auspices of the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG) in the UK. Depending on how successful I am in germinating seeds sent to me from enthusiasts from all over the world, my collection numbers between 140 and 150 Aquilegias.

The collection

Although I grow some of the Aquilegias in my collection in the open ground, the majority of them are grown in 9 inch (23cm) plastic pots. This enables me each spring, to distribute the pots to kind neighbours in my village in order to reduce the risk of cross pollination. Each year I collect the seed and sow again in order to maintain the collection. The pots (all 170) are returned and kept under cold frames during the winter months. In order to maintain my collection surplus plants are offered for sale through a small mail order nursery.

So often I am actually told 'Why bother with Aquilegias - they seed all over the place, and what's worse they have the morals of alley cats!'. Why bother indeed?

"Long-spurred columbines" is the phrase most gardeners use to describe the Aquilegias which are familiar to them. I have observed that the Aquilegias I grow include a wide range of beautiful flowers which are not long-spurred, some have subtle or quite distinct scents, some have fine cut, glaucous foliage.

In 1597 Gerard wrote that their flowers were: "five little hollow horns with small leaves standing upright of the shape of little birds - they are set and sown in gardens for the beauty of their flowers!" This is praise indeed. Gerard is cautious using the word 'beauty' to describe plants. In 1926 Reginald Farrer described Aquilegia viridi-flora as 'a glaucous pale-jade colour with fluff of golden stamens standing out. I put my nose to the flower - the columbine was emanating its message - a charm of scent as consciously coquettish and elusive as the charm of its restrained beauty.'

Should a gardener confine his attention to one plant in this genus, he misses the forms and foliage of another plant. This is sad. In fact there are few groups of plants richer in their variety.

Growing aquilegias

Aquilegias are not necessarily difficult to maintain - many have a remarkable tolerance. In a hot, dry climate they thrive best in partial shade, in a cooler area they are more tolerant of sun. In cold northern districts they should be given winter protection with dried leaves or bracken.

Seed sown in early spring may not germinate as well as seed sown in late summer. As it takes on average sixteen months from sowing to flowering gardeners should plan well in advance, I recommend gardeners should sow two years ahead, so that strong plants can be moved to their position. Some species such as Aquilegia caerulea and A. glandulosa may only survive for two or three years and must be continually re-established by seed collection whereas A. chrysantha is very long lived. Aquilegia plants can be kept in the garden for many years by preventing seed production, i.e. by removing flowers after blooming.

Aquilegias have been long in cultivation; those first grown were European species such as A. vulgaris and A. alpina. In 370 B.C. Theophrastus called them Diosanthus and in the 1st Century B.C. Dioscordes named them Isopyrum.

Aquilegia canadensis was brought by French explorers from the east coast of America and Canada and listed by Cornut in 1635. John Tradescant obtained it from Cornut in Paris and brought it to his garden in Lambeth, London, listing the plant in his collection in 1656, calling it the Virginian columbine. This is the earliest record of an Aquilegia introduction into the UK. Not until 1878, when Baker wrote an article in the Garden Chronicle on Aquilegias, were further introductions listed. Baker describes twenty-seven aquilegias grown in England. A few years later in 1893 Bruhl (a Bengali) wrote an article listing aquilegias which grow in Asia - A. amuriensis, A. buergeriana, A. flabellata, A. fragrans, A. glandulosa, A. nivalis, and A. sibirica. All these plants are fine additions to any rock garden.

My personal favourite is A. einseleana - Einsel's Columbine. It is one of the great under-rated alpine species, quietly displaying its beauty and delicate elegance. Although widespread it is still quite rare and seldom seen in this country. It grows in the calcareous Southern Alps from Lombardy to the Julian Alps, in the Dolomites and the calcareous Salzburg Alps. Often found in open stony places, even in natural rubble and the odd rocky outcrop in woods from 2,625ft to 6,000ft. It grows from 4-18 inches (10-45cm) high, flowering in late June/July in England. It is an erect herbaceous plant with a simple or slightly branched stem, more or less hairless and sparsely glandular pubescent above. The leaves are mostly basal with segments divided into two or three fan-shapes. The flowers are violet or violet-purple and are solitary or in pleasing groups of two or three at the apex of the stem. Like many plants to be seen in the Alps, it is listed as a protected species. The plant was introduced into the country in 1948. Watch out for it - it is well worth obtaining.

Aquilegia hybrids

I would also like to mention briefly two aquilegia hybrids: 'Nora Barlow' and 'Adelaide Addison'. 'Nora Barlow' is an interesting plant, known mainly to flower arrangers. In late spring the foliage is complimented by curious lime-green and pink spiky, nodding, pom-pom flowers. Although thought by some to be described in both Gerard's and Parkinson's Herbals, I am informed the plant occurred as a curious sport and was named after a descendant of Charles Darwin. 'Adelaide Addison' has flowers of mid-blue, with centres of double white edged with blue. This plant is named after a gardener whose descendants still live in Cambridgeshire.

John Drake is custodian of the National Collection of Aquilegias under the auspices of the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens.

Source of article
Growing From Seed - Winter 1987-88 Vol. 2 Number 1
© The Seed Raising Journal from Thompson & Morgan