Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Slug-resistant plants: Columbine (Aquilegia)

This post is part of my series on dealing with the slug problem. In addition to putting up barriers, I'm concentrating on growing plants that slugs avoid.

Collage of columbine currently blooming in my garden

One of my favorite flowers is columbine (Aquilegia). It has perfect timing, blooming right after the tulips and other spring bulbs have started to look seedy, and before many other summer flowers have opened. It is native to all temperate continents of the Northern Hemisphere, and was first mentioned in Germany, for example, by the famous mystic, healer, and gardener Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th century.

Columbine is easy care, self-seeding without being obnoxious, and beautiful in almost any setting. It's traditional in cottage gardens and can be found in almost every garden in Germany. I've hardly had to purchase any, since it keeps reappearing at various places in the garden, sometimes I suspect blown in from neighboring gardens. I've separated clumps and transplanted them, and I've traded with other gardeners. Right now, at the beginning of May, the garden is full of this elegant flower.

AND - slugs don't touch it. Go figure, since it looks so tender and scrumptious.

There are many varieties of Aquilegia. Its many vernacular names reflect just how widespread and anchored in garden lore this flower is. In English I found granny's bonnet, culverwort, rock bell, rock lily, and honeysuckle (Aquilegia canadensis, not to be confused with some varieties of Lonicera also called honeysuckle). We had Aquilegia in our garden where I grew up in Minnesota, and called it honeysuckle. There are sweet drops of nectar in the blossom spurs, certainly the source of this name.

In addition to the most common German name, Akelei, other names used include Elfenschuh (elf shoe), Zigeunerglocke (gypsy bell), and Narrenkappe (fool's cap).

Knowing how hardy columbine is, last year I bought an almost dead-looking plant from the bargain shelf of the garden center, and have been rewarded this spring with this beauty:

This one is low, but I have a similarly-colored variety that gets much taller and has double blossoms.

Columbine comes in colors ranging from white and pale pink to lavender and red through to dark purple. There are even some cultivars in shades of yellow, but I've never seen one. The kinds I have vary in height between about 30cm and 70cm (12 - 30 inches). The blossoms can be single or double, hanging or upright, and grow at the end of slender stems, sometimes widely spaced, sometimes in clusters.

I just love this tall, pale pink one combined with a lower, blue variety and bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis, another lovely slug-resistant flower) in a shady corner of the garden. Aquilegia grows in both shade and sun, but seems to prefer at least partial shade, judging by where it sows itself most copiously.

The tallest columbine I have is white, and truly looks bell-like. I've had to rip some of it out since it was crowding the saxifrage.

The following photos show off the various styles and colors of Aquilegia.

So if you don't have any yet in your garden, go right out and buy some of this versatile perennial. They can be planted or sowed right now.