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.


  1. I wish I'd known Columbine was unattractive to slugs in my first garden. The monsters mowed down almost everything that wasn't a tree. I tried everything, including beer traps (which are icky to empty, and the slugs don't deserve to die THAT happy). This would have been a beautiful alternative to stalking the nasty creatures. I just love your bargain pink Columbine, it's clearly blooming so much to thank you for saving it!

  2. i'll have to try columbine next year. your garden looks so lush and green. the columbines are gorgeous!

  3. Liebe Barbara! Deine Akeleien sehen fantastisch aus.
    Bezüglich der schneckenresistenten Pflanzen bin ich mir nicht so ganz sicher, wenn es sonst nichts gibt, fressen sie auch Dinge, die sie sonst in Ruhe lassen. Glaube daher kaum, dass es etwas gibt, was sie grundsätzlich verschmähen.

    lg kathrin

  4. Wow, you have so many beautiful ones Barbara. I love the blues and pinks, and purples. Okay maybe I love them all. LOL! The first one is especially a nice one. It looks like the blooms stand up better and do not droop like so many of them do. They are hardy little plants.

  5. I've grown a couple of varieties from seed this year - just pricked them out so I'm looking forward to a good display next year

  6. Columbine is Colorado's state flower. So I have to have these growing in my garden. I did not know they were slug resistant. But then again, I don't have slugs, I have voles. :0

  7. Love your Aquilegias they all look so happy in your garden. I brought seed with me when I moved house and now have all colours everywhere, they are marvellous plants aren't they.

  8. i have 2 colors of them, i really like this oldfashioned plant, and it self seeding fits my chaotic flowergarden :) i have light purple and very dark blue . i'm looking for seeds ofthe white variety.

    the foliage is so beautiful, even when it isnt blooming yet :)

  9. Wo9nderful pictures o9f Columbine. I am curious
    when roce time comes. how you will present them.

  10. Dear Barbara, Your Columbine collection is amazing! I have had no luck with them; you inspire me to try again. Love your collage. P. x

  11. It is slugs we have in common! My garden is currently packed with aquilegia - I love them (though not the doubles very much . . . I have a purple one but otherwise the tall, pale, simple plants are what I like best). Aquilegia and Foxgloves. Slugs leave the aquilegia alone completely and, although they munch on the lower leaves of foxgloves, they don't go far up the stems. (Tummy ache or filled with stodge? Don't know - but the flowers are untouched.)


  12. Yes, slugs don't like Columbines.
    Columbines change their colours from year to year.
    Next year you might be surprised to see different colours.
    Thank you for visiting,

  13. Du hast aber einen schönen Frühlingsgarten! Ich wusste garnicht, dass die Akeleien gegen Schnecken helfen sollen. Die ganz dunklen gefallen mir persönlich am besten. Liebe Grüße von Luzia.

  14. Have hust fallen in love with columbines after seeing your stunning pictures. Must get some for next year but when should I plant them in SE England? I have a sunny side and a shady side part of the day and an area which is always in the shade apart from early morning.

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