The Plant Native

Native Columbines: A Beginner’s Guide

Highlights

You’ve got to hand it to evolution: it’s made some beautiful plant-animal pairings. Take native columbines, for example. Their exquisite flowers hang downwards from delicate stems. Look closely, and you’ll notice these bell flowers look like elongated gnome hats with the top tapering off. What does that shape perfectly align with? Hummingbird beaks!

Native columbines have adapted to be perfect hummingbird feeders. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the main pollinator for many native columbines. Scroll on to meet a few favorites.

Full Sun – Part Shade
Height depends on species
Flowers in the spring
Aquilegia genus
Columbine flowers are perfectly shaped for hummingbirds

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native columbines

Table of Contents

There are almost 100 flowers globally that are technically “columbines” and belong to the plant genus Aquilegia. These flowers come from regions across the globe, mainly in Europe and North America. We’re here to pay homage to the North American native columbines. In this article, we’ll introduce the benefits of planting native columbines, introduce a few species native to North America, and share an overview on why you’ll find lots of columbine color options.

Let’s start with why we should plant native columbine.

What are the benefits of planting native columbine?

Planting plants that are native to your home area is important and returns lots of benefits. Some benefits of planting native plants, like native columbines include:

  • Wildlife support: Native plants are the preferred food for the wildlife we love: many columbines feed hummingbirds
  • Resilience in your region: Native plants know their region’s soil, weather, and climate better than any other plants on Earth. They have evolved to be experts at growing in their home area.
  • Time and money savings: Once native plants are established, most thrive with just rain
  • Beauty: Native plants are gorgeous. Explore our native plant library, or scroll on to meet some beautiful options for your yard 

Now that we’ve covered why planting native columbines is important and beneficial, let’s meet a few native columbine species for North American gardens.

Golden Columbines can look similar to daffodils while in bloom

Types of Native Columbines

There are dozens of columbines native to North America. Here are a few options that are usually found at native plant nurseries.

native Columbines for eastern North America

Red Columbine's flowers lets you know ruby-throated hummingbirds are here

Red Columbine

Aquilegia canadensis

This is the native columbine to find if you’re on the East Coast. Red Columbine‘s native range stretches from Nova Scotia all the way south to Florida and Texas. Its flowers open when the ruby-throated hummingbirds are migrating. (No need to check hummingbird migration maps when you plant this flower! Just look out the window.)

native Columbines for western North America

Blue Columbine is a gorgeous native option

Blue Columbine

Aquilegia caerulea

Yards in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Montana have a beautiful choice with Blue Columbine. It’s also the state flower of Colorado. Blue Columbine can get tall—3′ on average—and has some of the largest flowers within native columbines. You will often find cultivars (which stands for CULTIvated VARities) that offer different heights and flower colors. When possible—plant the true native Blue Columbine species.

Golden Columbine's buttery-yellow flowers look like daffodils

Golden Columbine

Aquilegia chrysantha

Southwestern states have a beautiful columbine option for gardens: Golden Columbine. Golden Columbines prefer areas near water (they like consistent moisture). When in bloom, they can look like daffodils. Golden Columbines get tall—1-3 feet. So easy to plant by seed if you can find a local plant seller.

Golden Columbine's buttery-yellow flowers look a little like daffodils

Western Columbine

Aquilegia formosa

I know—it looks almost exactly like the similarly named Red Columbine (it also sometimes goes by the common name Crimson Columbine.) But this one is for western gardens! Crimson Columbine is native from Southern California all the way north to Southern Alaska. Yes—what a range! Crimson Columbine can be a dainty plant (6″ high) or at its happiest grow to 3′. 

Have you seen other colors before? You probably have. Columbines easily cross-pollinate to make different blooms, sizes, and behaviors. Let’s go a little deeper into columbines’ family tree and talk about cultivars and hybridization.

If you’re about to scroll by—I promise this is interesting and worth reading. 

Columbine cultivars and hybrids

To keep it simple, there are two ways that native columbines can change their looks from their native forms: cultivation and cross-pollination.

Columbine Cultivars

Cultivars are plants that humans have selected. The name cultivar comes from CULTIvated VARiety. Cultivars are made via lots of different sources: some using DNA sequencing, others using old-fashioned “I-like-this-plant-I-will-take-a-seed-or-cutting-and-plant-again” curation. (Read our cultivar overview to learn more.)

You know a plant is a cultivar when its Latin botanical name is followed by a cheeky English name, in single quotes. (The Latin name tells you the original plant parent.) You may encounter the following columbine cultivars:

Yep: this is a columbine. It's the 'Winky Double Dark Blue and White' cultivar

Aquilegia caerulea ‘Kirigami’: deep shades of blue, maroon, and yellow. Its original parent plant is the Blue Columbine, which we met earlier.

Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Winky Double Dark Blue and White’: stacks layers of dark blue flowers. Its parent plant is the European Columbine, a columbine (as you might already guess!) is native to Europe.

Humans created those crazy plants. Now, let’s talk about how nature mixes things up.

Nature changes how columbines can look through hybridization.

Columbines easily hybridize in your garden

We all know—pollinators get their name from their ability to pollinate. So what is pollination, exactly? Pollination is the process by which pollen is transferred from the male part of a plant (the anther) to the female part of the same or another plant (the stigma), allowing fertilization to occur.

A very cool thing about columbines is that the almost 100 species come from the same few ancestor plants. Even though one might be yellow and another red, their DNA is very similar. So when a bee moves from one species of columbine to another, chances are the resulting seeds will be a mix of both species. Plants that are a mix of species, mixed up via nature are called hybrids.

Multiple columbines in an area = new colors, shapes, etc in future years

When you plant multiple species of columbine together, get ready for lots of fun, interesting hybrids in the coming years. Planting Blue Columbine near a Western Columbine might make a purple-y, medium-sized columbine next year. If you keep growing this new hybrid or give away seeds to friends, it’s technically a cultivar. Don’t forget to give it a good name!

If you want to keep your columbines looking the same: pick one species

On the other hand, you may be dedicated to planting true native species, or sticking to a similar color palette. If you want to keep your columbines looking consistent, ensure you stick to one species in your yard.

Native vs. Cultivar

Plant true native plants whenever possible. Cultivars (short for CULTivated VARieties) are selected and made by humans and do not offer the same benefits to bugs, birds, and animals that native plants do. 

Plant 5+ columbines together to help hummingbirds find food quickly

Planting 5+ is a good rule of gardening if you’re looking to support wildlife. Planting at least five plants together helps wildlife find their favorite native plants. (This is a useful rule for columbines, as well as milkweed—Monarch butterflies host plant.)

What are good places to plant columbines?

Our advice is to plant them in clear sight of your windows. This way, you can sip coffee from the luxury of your home while you watch hummingbirds zip around your garden. (We planted ours outside our kitchen window so we can spot hummingbirds while doing dishes.)

What are good pairings for native columbines?

It depends on your region! Since native columbines come from all parts of North America, it’s best to pick pairings based on where you live. Our regional guides help make this easy (and exciting). Find your region and explore pairing options:

Looking to attract hummingbirds?

Visit our article dedicated to hummingbird gardening. Here are also some individual plant profiles that hummingbirds love:

#image_title

Bee Balm: A Beginner’s Guide

hummingbird-cardinal-flower-native-plant

Cardinal Flower

butterfly-on-common-milkweed-the-plant-native

Common Milkweed

firebush-native-shrub-how-to-plant

Firebush

flame-azalea-native-plant-shrub

Native Azaleas: A Beginner’s Guide

#image_title

Red Columbine

And that concludes our love letter to native columbines! There are almost 100 columbines found worldwide, including dozens of beautiful options native to North America. Planting native plants like native columbines ensures that the hummingbirds and other iconic creatures get what they need to survive, and our gardens are beautiful with minimal work. Plant native columbines in groups of 5+ to ensure hummingbirds can find one of their favorite treats. If possible, plant where you can see the flowers from inside your house so you and the hummers can have breakfast together. Happy planting!

Next steps and resources:

There are lots of well-known plants that have native options available. Explore our beginner guides to native favorites:

UPDATED —
05/18/2024