Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Independent Aquilegias.

Wandering round the garden, wrapped up against the freezing cold winds, one of the most welcome sights of things to come are the emerging Aquilegias, the young fern-like, feathery foliage is particularly attractive when covered in moisture or frost and is the promise of flowers in couple of months time. Aquilegias are despised by some and relegated to almost "weed" status because of their habit of seeding everywhere but for me these colourful plants are extremely useful in any garden especially where there is dry shade but paradoxically are not always easy to establish.

A cluster of seedlings

Direct sowing is probably the preferred method of propagation as they do have a tendency to suit themselves as to where they thrive. "Independent" in the title relates to the fact that, although there are several contenders, for me Aquilegias win the prize for being the most contrary, give them what the perceived wisdom deems ideal conditions and they disappear yet they will seed themselves into a dry crevice in deep shade and live a self perpetuating existence for years. Personally I cold sow in autumn or spring and plant out from 3" pots as soon as they are established.  

A clump of Ballerina Strain seedlings.
The main reason they can survive in dry conditions is because they are tap-rooted which although it has its pluses also has it drawbacks in that they are not too fond of being disturbed particularly when established. I noticed a collection of albeit young bare-rooted plants for sale recently and to be quite honest, and this is solely my opinion, I would not entertain them. We exploit bare-rooted planting of tap rooted plants with such things as cabbages and of course wallflowers which are both members of the Brassicaceae but Aquilegias and some of their relatives from the Ranunculaceae don't seem to lend themselves to this. A mature plant needs to be transplanted with as much of the surrounding soil attached as possible otherwise the chances of survival are slim.
A nice selection of colours from home collected seed.

Their other bad habit is of course that they are extremely promiscuous most are short lived but produce copious amounts of seed. Over the years, no matter what good intentions the grower may have, it becomes difficult to recognise any individual species as they tend to blend in to one another as they die off and reproduce producing a "Hybrid Swarm". There can however be some nice surprises when an exceptional seedling crops up.  

A really nice seedling which seems to have Aquilegia 'William Guinness' as one of its parents, the stems are actually quite dark.

Some named Aquilegia:

Aquilegia vulgaris 'William Guinness'
One of the most popular forms, sometimes known as "Magpie"

Aquilegia jonesii?
Seed acquired as Aquilegia jonesii but I think that it is more likely to be a hybrid between Aquilegia jonesii and Aquilegia saximontana. 

Aquilegia clematiflora
I don't know the origins of this variant of Aquilegia vulgaris but the clematis-like flowers are pretty and come in a selection of colours.

Aquilegia yabeana
Very hardy Japanese species, colours vary from the deep blue/purple pictured to lighter shades.

Aquilegia chrysantha

One of the American species used to develop long-spurred hybrids.

Meant to be Aquilegia alpina but looks more like Aquilegia caerulea
Aquilegia fragrans
Attractive fragrant plant from the Western Himalayas, very feathery foliage.

A couple of modern Hybrids:
Aquilegia × hybrida 'Pink Bonnets'

Aquilegia x hybrida F1 Songbird 'Bluebird'
Aquilegia formosa
This is, to the best of my knowledge, a freak mutation of Aquilegia formosa producing a double flower, unfortunately I was unable to save any seed and the plant died in the ensuing winter never having been entirely happy.

I hope you enjoyed this brief visit to the world of Aquilegias and that you are able to enjoy them to.


  1. You seem to have quite a collection of them. Here A. canadensis grows profusely in the wild (mostly in the gravel on road embankments). There are also some garden escapes along the roads but, strangely, the vast majority of these are what I think of as 'Grandma's bonnets', that is with very double spur-less flowers. I expect these have escaped gardens many decades ago (there were 10 times more people living around here at the time of the 1st World War than there are now). In the garden, I encourage the minature ones (descendants I think of A. saximontana) but I am afraid of the taller ones that give every signs of becoming a nuisance if they are given an opportunity.

    1. I have actually grow quite a few more species over the years Alain but I do tend keep an eye on A.vulgaris although it does lend itself to the more challenging areas of the garden. Why was your area de-populated, was it because of the war?

  2. A very enjoyable visit Rick. Re your comment about bare root Aquilegia - I bought some a few years back and out of 3 only one ever survived but I think that was luck rather than skill. I discovered too, much to my annoyance, that the mature plants don't move successfully either. Of course, your post confirms all my findings thus far!
    I added 3 plants of A. William Guinness last year I must check to see if it has come back. I like the dark colour on the blooms.
    Have you seen the latest re disease. I came across it recently.

    1. Thanks Angie, it is good to have confirmation even though it is not what we really want. The link was very interesting I feel really sorry for the lady with the National Collection. I have always noticed that Aquilegias are subject to mildew anyway, but first Impatiens and now Aquilegias whatever next :(.

  3. Rick, our first house with a garden was way back in 1969 when I was twenty three, (folk got married young then) In our neighbours garden I spotted these flowers which I had never before seen, turned out of course to be Aquilegias. Well ever since then, we have had them in the garden.
    Although some can be short lived, others go on for years, Nora Barlow, perhaps not my favourite has been in the same position in our Aberdeen garden for ten years, well it will be eleven if its still there. Thoroughly enjoyed your post, in fact I am going to scatter some seeds and see what happens.

    1. Hi Alistair, like yourself I can remember A.vulgaris going way back and lasting for years, they seem to be as tough as old boots but after following the link on Angie's comments I am not too sure. Good luck with your seeds I hope they work well for you.

  4. Thank you for a very informative post, Rick. You have some lovely named varieties . I love the deep purple Aquilegia Yabeana. Mine are all inbred and most are a washed out pink, but I love them for their optimistic cheerfulness, as they pop up all over the garden, in some very unlikely places. I have planted named varieties over the years, but, as you say, they all interbreed far too successfully !

    1. Thanks Jane, I agree with you it is their sheer unpredictability which adds to their charm.

  5. Ah, this post came very timely! I have only ONE aquileiga, but if I end up moving this spring I intend to take it with me. I will try to dig deep and wide - and hope for the best! After reading your interesting post I would like to get many more, there are so many really pretty and I hope I will find room for a variety of them.

    1. Glad to be of service Helene :) I am awaiting your move with interest.