Dancing Aquilegias

29. May 2021 by Isabelle Van Groeningen
Categories: About gardening, english, Seasons, Spring, Summer | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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Aquilegia 'Yellow Queen' © Isabelle Van Groeningen

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzung – auf Deutsch lesen – As you know, I am fond of opportunists. Plants that have made their home in my garden, and move about from year to year, finding a suitable space to grow and flourish. I love the dynamic this brings into a space. It will never look the same two years in a row.

I find aquilegias indispensable in this role, and over the years it has become a real signature plant of mine. Rarely a planting plan will leave my desk, without a sprinkling of some aquilegia or other to bring early colour in the borders bridging the gap between the spring bulb season and the early summer perennial show. It is not a plant that will bring cars to a screeching halt, but its modest charm makes them very lovable. I particularly adore the taller, long-spurred ones like Aquilegia chrysantha ‘Yellow Queen’ as they float high above the then still small perennials, and will bring great movement and liveliness into a border. They always remind me of swallows diving down to water.

This is why I was appalled to read that the Downy Mildew disease which has been badly affecting British gardens has now also reached continental Europa and was reported in a garden in Niedersachsen. This pathogen probably originated from Asia and will destroy the plant. Touchwood Plants, the Welsh Nursery that had the National Collection of Aquilegias had to close and destroy its collection due to this fungal disease destroying its stock.


There are over 50 species, distributed across the northern hemisphere, growing in meadows and partly shaded woodland areas, some occurring at higher altitudes. It is a plant that has occupied our gardens since many centuries and can be found depicted on Van Eijck’s famous Altar piece ‘Het Lam Gods’, which was inaugurated in 1432 in Ghent.  It is a real cottage garden plant.


Aquilegias have attractive lobed foliage, usually grey-green, sometimes with hints of purple. Over a low mound of leaves tall, thin flower stems grow up carrying numerous flowers that mostly flutter high above the foliage, depending on the species.  The flowers consist of five sepals, designed to attract insects, that enclose five petals. These are the ones with the elongated, tubular spur, in which the nectar sits which makes this plant so popular with bees. In Europe it is mostly bumblebees that can access this nectar, as they tend to have a proboscis or tongue long enough to reach down into the bottom of these spurs. Those that cannot, sometimes cheat and make a hole on the side to access it. Many of the hybrids that are commonly sold these days are filled, almost pompon-like flowers that have only noticeably short little spurs, or none at all.  The north American species A. longissima and A. chrysantha have particlurarly long, elegant spurs, which are pollinated by hawkmoths hence their yellow colour. Hummingbirds go for red, and are therefore the pollinators of A. schocklei, whereas in Europe the colour range of A. alpina and A. vulgaris is in shades of blue and purple, the colour that are attractive to bumblebees. 

Aquilegia longissima © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Aquilegia longissima


They are easy to please. Tucked in among taller perennials, they are kept cool in summer, so even when a border is very sunny, they are perfectly happy. In a partly shaded garden, they will perform equally happily, not minding drier conditions.

After flowering these early, short-lived perennials will lose their appeal once they have set seed. I tend to cut mine back after flowering, to prevent the plant from self-seeding, unless I want them to increase. They tend to be quite promiscuous and will hybridise readily with any other aquilegia in the neighbourhood, resulting in mixed offspring. I found my barlows reverted to a pale pink majority after several years, losing the more interesting darker colours. If you have a particular type you want to keep “clean” make sure you do not plant it in the vicinity of others.

Their physical presence will dwindle as summer progresses, which is why I prefer to scatter them in amongst other, later-flowering perennials rather than grow them in larger groups. They are good with late-summer, autumn companions such as asters and grasses, who will occupy the space left by them.

European species:

Aquilegia vulgaris (Gewöhnlicher Akelei)

This common plant occurs naturally in west-, central and southern Europe, as far as the Ukraine. It reaches 65cm, has mostly purple-blue nodding flowers, occasionally also pink or white. It grows in light shade, preferably lightly calcareous soil. Many of the well-known garden hybrids have arisen from this plant.

‘William Guiness’ has unique maroon, almost black flowers. The edge of the petals is pure white, making it all look like a pint of the famous Irish brew. In my Coleshill garden I used to grow it together with Geranium phaeum ‘Samobar’. It flowers at a similar time, of similar height (65cm) and colour but in reverse: The petals are also this dark maroon colour, but instead of having white tips, it has a white blotch at the base of the petals. 

Aquilegia 'Rose Barlow' © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Aquilegia ‘Rose Barlow’

Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata contains a series of spur-less, tightly filled pompon flowers that are particularly popular. Probably best known is ‘Nora Barlow’ has white tipped, pink petals. This hybrid was named after Nora Barlow, Charles Darwin’s granddaughter who geneticist who was also interested in crossing aquilegias. ‘Blue Barlow’ is dark blue, ‘Black Barlow’ very dark reddish-black, ‘Ruby Port’ very dark red and ‘Green apples’ pure white.

Aquilegia alpina (Alpen Akelei)

Growing at high altitude in the Alps and the Apennines, this relatively short-spurred plant prefers a more acid soil with plenty of organic matter. Growing to about 40 cm, its colour varies from blue to shades of purple. 

North American species:

Aquilegia coerulea (Langspornige Akelei)

This plant originates in the Rocky Mountains and is also known as the Colorado Blue Columbine and is the national flower for the state of Colorado. As the name indicates, this is blue. 

There are several popular, mostly long-spurred garden hybrids that have probably arisen out of crosses with A. chrysantha or A. longissima that are common in our gardens. ‘Mrs M. Nicholls’ is a charming pale blue and white, ‘Crimson Star’ (red and white), ‘Kristall’ is pure white. These will reach about 50cm, whilst ‘McKana’ with mixed colours grows up to 80cm.  More like the species, ‘Biedermeier’ has very short, hooked spurs, in white pink and violet, but its flowers point more up towards the heavens.

Aquilegia canadensis (Kanadische Akelei)

Aquilegia canadensis © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Aquilegia canadensis

This plant is to be found in lightly shaded woodlands in eastern North America. Reaching only about 30cm, it has quite compact orange-red and yellow flowers that rigidly face downwards. ‘Little Lanterns’ is the most commonly encountered selection. 

Aquilegia chrysantha (Gold Akelei)

The spurs of this large-flowered species can reach up to 7cm long, giving its beautiful silhouette in the border. The form ‘Yellow Queen’ is the most popular one found in nurseries, is even taller than the species and can grow up to 1,5 meters. It has a remarkable long flowering season, continuing to produce its flowers into August. In contrast to many other species, whose flowers tend to be downward pointing, this one proudly lifts its face up to the sky. Aquilegia longissima is not dissimilar to A. chrysantha, except that tis spurs are even longer, reaching up to 10cm. This is rarely offered by nurseries.

Asian species:

Aquilegia flabellata var pumila (Zwerg-Fächer-Akelei)

The Variety ‘Ministar’ is a compact, low-growing plant of 15cm height, ideal for those who have only a terrace or balcony. Pale blue and white flowers sit just above the foliage.

Aquilegia viridiflora

This dainty species with unusual Green and Brown colouring originates from south Siberia, China and Japan. A selection called ‘Chocolate Soldiers’ is often encountered in nurseries. Smaller than most aquilegias, it has more finely cut foliage and its flowers tend to nod like little bells.

If you have none in your garden, I suggest you hurry to your nearest nursery or seed-supplier and quickly do something about it!

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