Plugging the flowering gap between spring bulbs and early summer flowers, are the charming, bonnet-shaped flowers of the aquilegia. Commonly known as columbine or granny's bonnet, aquilegia is a hardy, perennial plant which thrives in Scotland's climate.
Aquilegia blooms in mid-spring, flowering for approximately six to eight weeks through April and May, which makes them an important source of nectar for bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects at a time in the garden where there may not be many blooms in flower. Each of the five flower petals has a spur with a feast of nectar on offer.
Although blue and purple aquilegias dominate in Scotland, worldwide there are over 70 species of aquilegia, flowering in a range of colours from delicate pastel pinks, creams, and pale blues through to deeper yellows, purples, and reds. There is even an intensely deep, purple variety, Aquilegia ‘Black Barlow’, which looks almost black.
As well as the classic single flowered varieties, there are double flowers with frilled edges, as well as two-tone varieties, all of which grow from basal rosettes of lacy, pale-green, scalloped leaves.
From diminutive varieties at just 10cm tall to flower stalks rising to over a metre tall, some varieties smell gorgeous, like Aquilegia fragrans so plant them near a doorway or path where you can most appreciate the delicate scent.
Aquilegia prefers well-draining soil and partial shade so is ideal planted in a location where it will receive morning sun and afternoon shade.
Add some compost or a slow-release fertiliser to the soil before planting, but avoid adding too much nitrogen which can cause leggy growth and fewer flowers.
Aquilegia is a generally hardy plant, even slugs generally give them a wide berth. They can though be susceptible to powdery mildew. To prevent this, avoid overhead watering, improve air circulation around the plant, and remove any infected leaves immediately.
Deadhead spent blooms to encourage new growth and prolong the blooming period. Once the flowers have finished, cut back the entire plant to ground level, ready to grow anew next spring.
Aquilegias are difficult to transplant as they have large tap roots which do not like to be disturbed. They will though self-seed freely around the garden, giving you an abundance of plants for free which you can leave where they find themselves, or dig up when they are small, and move to a location of your choosing.
Alternatively, you can save seed from the seedheads so you can sow in areas that need a boost of spring colour. When the seedhead is fully ripe, cover with a paper bag, cut the stem, and shake the seeds into the bag, remembering to label the bag if you are going to store them before sowing.
If you do not want aquilegias popping up all over the place, simply remove the flower heads as they fade.
Aquilegia ‘Nora Barlow’ with raspberry-pink and white petals is a variety which survives well indoors in a vase.
You can even bring a potted aquilegia indoors and it will survive for a few days for a pretty Easter display.
Aquilegia vulgaris: this is the most common species of aquilegia and can be found in a variety of colours, including blue, pink, and white. It can tolerate a range of soil types and is often found growing wild in woodlands.
Aquilegia alpina: this species is native to alpine regions and is known for its delicate, sky-blue flowers. It prefers well-drained soil and cool temperatures, making it a good fit for Scotland's climate.
Aquilegia canadensis: this North American species has red and yellow flowers and prefers moist, well-drained soil. It can be grown in partial shade and is relatively easy to care for.
Aquilegia chrysantha: known for its large, yellow flowers, this species is native to the southwestern United States. It can be grown in full sun or partial shade and prefers well-drained soil.
Aquilegia caerulea: known as the Rocky Mountain columbine, this species is native to the western United States and has blue and white flowers. It prefers cool temperatures and well-drained soil.