Order: Ranunculales Family: Ranunculaceae
Subfamily: Thalictroideae Genus: Aquilegia
Type: Hardy perennial Propagation: Seed
Native to: Europe and North America
I never planted an Aquilegia, yet at this time of year my garden is full of them. They are not fancy ones with strange colours and extra long spurs at the back of their heads, which always remind me of an alien creature freshly out of a Giger designed spaceship. Still they have a good range of colours, from pure white to pale pink, lilac and mauve, deep burgundy or rich violet. I even get the occasional double white and double pink. The name ‘Aquilegia’ is for the Latin word for eagle, “Aquila”, because the petals resemble eagle claws. So alien is not that far off really. Just a bit scarier.
The Aquilegia has a few common names. ‘Granny’s Bonnet’ is the most well-known and self explanatory. “Columbine” again is from a Latin word, this time for “dove”, because the petals look like little doves in a group hug. This is the peaceful, sweet version of the eagle’s claws. In spite of their sweet appearance, Aquilegias are toxic (especially the roots and seeds), so the eagle version is probably closer to the truth than the gentle dove.
After the flowering season, I let them dry out in situ. When the seedpods are ready, I give them a good shake before cutting the stems, encouraging self-seeding should they wish to propagate. They usually do. The reason the fancy ones tend to disappear from the borders is that these new pretty varieties are more fragile than their more robust ancestor. This fragility means that they are short lived. There is also the fact that Aquilegias being interfertile, these recessive genes beauties are taken over by the dominant genes dinosaurs and the results of their frolicking revert to the wild version generation after generation. In other words, the aristocratic parents die young and their descendants become more and more common.
My favourite specimen this year is an all-white beauty growing under the Camellia. The white is the purest I have ever seen on a bloom. It looks like a commercial for washing powder, whiter than white that might blind you if you look straight at it for too long. The petals are so delicate that they look like insect wings, transparent enough to let the sunlight through several layers. Yet with all this delicate lacework, their stems are straight and strong, seemingly indestructible as they sway in the strong May winds. A perfect alliance of fragility and strength. I really hope this one comes back again.
So in conclusion, eagle or dove?
Perhaps a gentle eagle, or a fierce dove, or as the Aquilegia itself a cross between the strongest eagle and the tenderest dove…