When you happen upon eastern red columbine in the wild—with angled sun glinting on the bright red and yellow of its bell-shaped blossoms—it can be a magical moment. This plant is equally lovely in garden settings. It works well in pots, in rock gardens and directly in the soil.
After its first flush of bloom—generally in May in the Upper Midwest—you may find repeat blooms through midsummer. Deadheading can encourage this. Each plant bears a branching structure with multiple blooms on long stems. The bright, showy flowers feature five yellow petals, five red petal-like sepals, and a cluster of long yellow stamens that dangle out of the bell. The Latin genus name Aquilegia derives from the word “eagle” (Aquila), a reference to the clawlike tops of the flower petals.
Eastern red columbine is a host plant for the columbine duskywing butterfly, along with several other insects. It’s a favorite nectar source for ruby-throated hummingbirds; plant it, and you’re likely to see hummingbirds in your garden, along with beneficial butterflies, bees and moths.
In addition to its attractive blooms, eastern red columbine’s fernlike foliage forms mounds of delicate, lobed green leaves. The lacy mounds remain after the flowers bloom and often take on shades of red and orange in the fall. The plant is evergreen to minus 10 degrees F. It’s also deer- and rabbit-resistant, and it tolerates drought and alkaline soil.
Great companions include other spring-blooming wildflowers such as native Heuchera, phlox and irises. Foliage plants with visual interest, such as Carex pennsylvanica, Asarum canadense and Tiarella cordifolia, merge well with columbine’s flowers and foliage in various phases of the growing season.
This plant is not fussy about growing conditions with one exception: It requires adequate drainage. Whether in deep shade, partial shade or sun; sandy, loam or clay soil; this columbine generally will thrive as long as the soil is well drained. Its native habitats range from woodlands, to rock ledges, to open meadows and prairie edges, so it’s a versatile garden plant under cultivation.
The most effective method of adding columbine to the garden is by sowing seed in spring or fall. Simply sprinkle seeds on top of the soil and lightly tamp in. The plants should appear the first year and bloom in the second season. While it’s difficult to start this plant from divisions, small plants can be moved within the garden or planted from nursery stock. It’s a short-lived plant, but it usually self-seeds to maintain its presence in the garden.
Eastern red columbine is a cheery native plant that will be happy in just about any garden. To retain the straight species and prevent hybridizing, separate widely from other Aquilegia species.
Beth Stetenfeld is a master naturalist and garden blogger.