Looking for a gorgeous native perennial that works almost anywhere in the country? With its pretty leaves and showy flowers, columbine (Aquilegia) is the cottage gardener’s best-kept secret!

Yellow-maroon Columbine

Columbines have five round center petals with five pointed petals behind, creating a star shape.

Photo Credit: Amy Dee Stephens

Red-yellow Columbine

Depending on the species, columbine flowers may be upright or appear to “nod” forward.

Photo Credit: Amy Dee Stephens

Yellow Columbine

Mixed with ferns, columbine lends a woodland feel to the spring garden.

Photo Credit: Amy Dee Stephens

Yellow-purple Columbine

The two-tone petals come in a variety of color combinations.

Photo Credit: Amy Dee Stephens

This medium-sized plant (1-3 feet high) features upright shoots filled with pretty scalloped leaves that stay green from spring through fall. But that’s just the beginning. The real showstopper is the mass of dainty flowers that hover above the plant like a swarm of bees. Adding to its insect-like qualities are the trademark spurs that extend out behind the flower petals. These neat plant parts can be straight or coiled, but the overall effect (in my opinion) resembles a delicate winged insect.

Columbine flower colors vary greatly. Red, yellow, white, blue and purple are common hues, but the plant’s especially famous for its two-tone blooms. Each flower features five inner petals of one color and an outer layer of petals in another. Flowers start to appear in late spring and last about six weeks. When the blooms are spent, you can remove them or let them go to seed. And seed they will! The main plant only lasts about three years, but seedlings will keep your columbine growing in abundance for years to come (although plants don’t bloom their first year).

Unwanted sprouts are easy to remove and swap with neighbors. Be aware, however, that if you have several varieties in your garden, it’s anyone’s guess what colors you’ll end up with next year! Columbine hybridizes like crazy, which can be great fun or great frustration, depending on your preference. If you want a specific color, buy a started columbine to transplant – that way you’re guaranteed your preferred color – at least for one year.

A quick note on seeds: Mature plants spend great energy on producing them, which reduces the energy available for the following year’s growth. To get the most out of your columbine, allow a spare plant to go to seed, but trim the rest of the flowering stalks as the blooms fade on the choice plants. This helps ensure big, healthy plants the next season.

One of the great things about this perennial wildflower is that you can take advantage of its many color combinations just about anywhere in the entire country. It’s hardy in USDA Hardiness zones 3-9. While Aquilegia comprises about 65 species with many hundreds of cultivars, the most common natives of North America include Aquilegia atrata (dark columbine), Aquilegia coerulea (Rocky Mountain columbine), Aquilegia canadensis (red columbine), Aquilegia chrysantha (golden columbine), Aquilegia formosa (Western columbine), Aquilegia laramiensis (Laramie columbine) and Aquilegia longissima (longspur columbine).

Whichever species you choose, you’ll love your columbine’s ability to tolerate average soil (but not clay) and dry conditions – although moist soil is ideal. As far as light requirements go, these beauties crave partially shady to mostly sunny spots. I like planting them under a tree to re-create the perfect woodland setting in which the plants thrive. But you don’t have to limit them to these sites – columbines do well in rock gardens and containers, and they last a long time as cutflowers.

If you’re interested in starting this plant from seed, it’s easy as pie. Just scatter the seeds on top of the soil in the winter or spring. If you want to start them indoors, it’s a bit more work: Place the seeds in potting mix in April and chill them in the fridge a few weeks. After they’ve sprouted, transplant them outdoors.

With its exotic beauty, columbine is truly an underappreciated native wildflower. Its lovely blooms, long-lasting foliage and low-maintenance charm are sure to make it a winner in your garden!