Columbine flowers seem destined for flight, hovering as they do above the plants' leaves tethered to the ground by slender stalks. Even the forms of the blossoms -- petals flaring forward, then tapering to the rear in a long-pointed spur -- resembles a shooting star or fireworks. Perhaps it was this aerial quality that induced women of a century ago to dangle the freshly picked flowers, attached to thin hoops of gold, from their ears as earrings.
The native Canadian columbine is among the daintiest of columbines. The flowers are small and bright, with yellow petals shading to orange at the spurs. They are the earliest columbines to bloom. Another small columbine is the Alpine columbine and it usually has blue flowers.
If you like splashier flowers, grow a hybrid variety of columbine. McKana's Giants have enormous flowers. Nora Barlow has double flowers. Fan columbine is among the few columbine species with spurless flowers.
If spurs characterize a columbine flower, then Rocky Mountain columbine is tops in this area. From its flowers, usually blue and white, trail long tapering spurs. At the other extreme is Granny's Bonnet with blue or violet flowers and short spurs.
There are about 65 species of columbines. Promiscuous interbreeding of all these species has led to many hybrid forms, some of which are natural hybrids and others which are the result of intentional breeding.
With the exception of the somewhat stocky Fan columbine, all columbines have light, airy foliage. Each leaf is composed of three fanlike leaflets which resemble those of the maidenhair fern. The soft mounds of columbine foliage not only enhance the grace and airiness of the flowers hovering overhead, but are themselves attractive in the garden.
Columbines are easy to grow. They are not choosy about soil and thrive in either full sun or partial shade. Although classified as perennials, columbines often die out after a few years. But new plants are easy to propagate by dividing and replanting old plants in late summer, or by sowing seed. The seeds sprout best if first kept cool for a few weeks after sowing -- in a refrigerator, for example.
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