Of all the spring flowers, the aquilegia, also known as columbine, is one of my favourites. It emerges at around daffodil time in a froth of green lace foliage – itself a delight – which is followed by flowers on long slender stems, resembling tiny birds in full flight; hence its name, derived from the Latin columbus, meaning ‘dove’.
So if you fancy a garden filled with doves, this is the girl for you. And personally, I wouldn’t be without at least a few of its many forms because, despite its delicate appearance, it’s a hardy perennial and a tough old bird that reappears year after year with the minimum of fuss.
It also flings its seeds about with gay abandon, creating new plants round its lace-green skirts, which is perhaps why it was such a stalwart of the cottage garden, where plants were left to get on with their own lives without perpetual cosseting.
That gay abandon, however, makes it a bit of a slut, as it breeds promiscuously with any other aquilegia that crosses its path. So if you’ve been coveting a white or pale yellow form in one part of the garden and a ruby red in another, don’t be surprised to discover they have other ideas when it comes to their offspring. Some of those may create a happy chance of beauty; but if you’re a purist about colour schemes, simply cut off the flowers as soon as they begin to set seed.
I am particularly fond of the Barlow variety, which has tightly pleated and ruffled flowers that bring to mind a glorious Easter bonnet (hence the aquilegia’s other common name of Granny’s Bonnet).
Nora Barlow, named after Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, is a lovely, frilly confection of cream edged with lime green and lipstick pink. The most fashionable of the Barlow family at present is Black Barlow, more a deep inky violet than a true black. This once-humble plant, now a favourite of garden designers, is often to be seen flouncing through the borders of that floral catwalk, the Chelsea Flower Show.
The aquilegia is well suited to the modern cottage garden, which is presently in vogue, as well as to the trend for a more ‘natural’ look. It is particularly lovely planted among airy grasses and does well in dappled shade, which is always a bonus.
Once the leaves begin to look tired, which they will do come summer, simply chop the whole lot down to the ground. No fiddling around: brutality is called for here. You will be rewarded with a mounds of fresh green foliage.
Further reading Sweet peas: yum yum