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Look beyond the state flower

M.G. Gallagher
Vail, CO, Colorado

Columbines are a favorite in many gardens. Colorado blue columbine, our state flower, is well suited to the gardens and woodlands of the higher elevations. In addition to Colorado blue, there are many columbine species and hybrids that work in the range of climates in a region that quickly transitions from montane down to high desert for most of the residents of this area.

While columbines tend to get generalized as preferring more water, and needing shade, the reality is that different species of columbines have different needs and growing characteristics. Many ornamental columbines are native to various parts of the U.S., including the Rocky Mountain west. Some are more drought-tolerant than others. Some bloom early, some later.

There are several species that are natives from around the country that work well here. Our state flower, Aquilegia caerulea, is an obvious choice, but another Colorado native is worth looking for at nurseries. Western red columbine, A. elegantula, is native to the Four Corners states, and that’s it. It occurs in the wild close by, including around Redcliff. It is a small, with red-spurs changing to yellow to creamy yellow petals. It is narrow and elegant.



It is a gem, but is not to be dug from the wild. It is easily grown from seed, and this is legal. Western red columbine is rare in the wild and is meant to be left where it is growing. It is also called shooting star columbine. It is much smaller than Colorado blue, and doesn’t have the spreading sepals of many species, but it is a beautiful small columbine. If you can find it through a nursery, snag it. It is a gem among the Aquilegias.

Golden columbine, A. chrysantha, is a fantastic columbine for brightening up a garden without getting harsh. It’s actually more of a true yellow, and soft enough to use in a lot of situations. It’s also called yellow columbine. Its tones blend well with other colors better than true golden yellows. It is perfect where the blues, pinks and purples of other columbines just don’t show up well enough.



A. chrysantha tolerates sun, and has a long flowering season. It also is fine in part shade, just where some other columbines aren’t as visible.

Don’t get me wrong. The various columbine colors are all part of a nice visual package when it comes to this genus. Hybrids and species come in reds, blues, pinks, purples, yellows and whites. McKana’s Hybrids and Giants are are a great mix with large plants and long flowering seasons among columbines, and readily available. There are other hybrid lines, but information is readily available online and at nurseries.

Besides, the natives, the species and varieties (subspecies) have some of the best garden selections among themselves.



There are a couple of other valuable red columbines. Western columbine, Aquilegia formosa, is similar in color to A. elegantula, but it is larger, and the the sepals spread wider. It has a nice, neat nodding habit, and is another good garden choice.

Aquilegia canadensis can vary from rose-pink to quite red, and is yet another wildflower that is also a striking ornamental.

Remember, many native wildflowers are rare, some threatened, and all are protected. No transplanting allowed. Seed collection is OK Be conscientious to the population. Columbines, like many wildflowers are available from nurseries, and from seed sources.

All columbines are easy to grow from seed, and you often find seedlings around existing plants. The young plants are easily transplanted in the spring or fall. Mid-summer is harder on transplants.

Coming soon in next week’s columb ” drought tolerant natives.


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