25: Spring 2010

Author: Jennifer Harmer


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Jennifer Harmer

Aquilegias are much loved members of the Ranunculaceae family. There is some controversy as to the derivation of the word ‘aquilegia’. Stern says it is from the Latin, aquila meaning ‘eagle’, the petals being suggestive of an eagle’s claw; however Robert Nold (see below) suggests it comes from the Latin aquilex (plural aquileges) meaning ‘dowser’ or ‘water finder’, referring to the quantity of nectar in the spurs which is especially evident in the pressed specimens of some species.

Aquilegia vulgaris is the cottage garden plant commonly known as columbine, or granny’s bonnets, as I always called them as a child. Aquilegias were one of first plants I fell in love with as a very young gardener; they were so easy to grow from seed. As I have become more experienced I realised just how promiscuous they are. I now grow three varieties of Aquilegia vulgaris, which I keep in separate parts of the garden to prevent cross-fertilisation if they do seed, but I dead-head fairly vigorously and only allow one or two plants to seed. One is pink and was in the garden when I bought the house back in 1980, and I was told that the seed came from Beatrix Potter’s garden in Lake District; a very pale blue one came from Jane Sterndale-Bennett’s garden at White Windows and the named variety, Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Adelaide Addison’ is a lovely dark violet and white. Adelaide Addison lived in Cambridgeshire and the plant was saved from her garden by her grandson, Timothy Clark. I also grow one long-spurred hybrid which has no name. It is a beautiful yellow and came from Carol Klein, who always used it on her stand at Chelsea. Another popular plant is Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ’Nora Barlow’ AGM. Nora Barlow (née Darwin, 1885-1989) was the granddaughter of Charles Darwin; she married Alan Barlow and had six children. This is a mutant spurless form of Aquilegia vulgaris and now comes in a variety of colours.

I am also very fond of Aquilegia canadensis AGM, which is a soft red and yellow and was introduced into England in the 17th century by John Tradescant. It was widely used by native peoples to cure a variety of ailments and as an aphrodisiac. This plant was crossed with the English native Aquilegia vulgaris to form the basis for the long-spurred varieties. There are a number of aquilegia species, which I find are a little more difficult to keep going but Sue Ward, who gardens in Hampshire, grows them with great success. Among her favourites are:- Aquilegia bertolonii – a lovely small and true blue alpine species named for the Italian botanist Antonio Bertoloni. Aquilegia flabellata is another small alpine aquilegia from northern Japan. The name means ’like an open fan’. Semiaquilegia ecalcarata is a very dainty little plant with deep wine flowers and is a native of central/western China, growing at elevations of 3,000 m.
Aquilegia atrata -‘atrata’ means ‘blackened’, due to the very dark flowers – is a striking plant though not particularly long-lived, but is easily kept going by seed.
Aquilegia vulgaris ’William Guiness’ (syn. ’Magpie’) is probably a cross between vulgaris and atrata.
Aquilegia amurensis is a species rare in cultivation, from the Amur River (Heilong) in eastern Asia.

Another favourite of mine is Aquilegia viridiflora (‘green flower’) which Sue grows but I always lose. This comes from the Altai Mountains through Northern China to the Amur River. It has a lovely perfume.

Two aquilegias for which I have a special fondness are Aquilegia atrovinosa and Paraquilegia anemonoides. I have never grown either of them but in 2005 Jane Sterndale-Bennett and I went to Kazakhstan and we saw these plants growing in the wild. We took a 13-hour train journey to a tiny village called Dzabagly in the western Tien Shan Mountains and saw the beautiful Aquilegia atrovinosa, which had semi-double, deep burgundy, sweetly scented flowers, growing among tlie rocks. On our return to Almaty, the largest town in Kazakhstan, we took a short journey up into the surrounding mountains, staying in an abandoned Russian astronomical observatory. The weather was not good but finally cleared on our last morning to allow us to climb to 3,400 m where we found Paraquilegia anemonoides nestling in the rocks. Both these plants look absolutely stunning and when you see them growing in their natural habitat you realise why they are so difficult to grow here – it is almost impossible to meet their growing needs in a Hampshire garden.

If you want further information on aquilegias, Robert Nold has written an excellent book called ‘Columbines – Aquilegia, Paraquilegia and Semiaquilegia’ (Timber Press, 2003).

First published in the Ranunculaceae Group Newsletter Spring 2008
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 25.
© Copyright for this article: Jennifer Harmer

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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