Friday, March 27, 2009

In praise of Canadian Columbine

Last fall I collected a sizeable amount of seeds from my four columbine plants (Aquilegia canadensis). This was around the same time that I gathered the Eupatorium seeds (see "Last Man Standing" post). I cold stratified them for nearly four months, then I scarified them gently with sandpaper and cold/moist stratified them for another month. I read that columbine seeds take a while to germinate--up to four weeks. Expecting sub-par germination rates, I planted all of them in only a few cells of my seed-starting trays. Then, as my other seeds sprouted vigorously around those barren cells, I felt that my worst fears had been confirmed.

Like clockwork, shoots appeared three weeks after I planted the seeds. Over the next week the sprouts multiplied exponentially until I had a ridiculous amount of seedlings, all thriving admirably (in contrast to the Eupatoriums, which continued to decline during this time).

I have now transplanted these slow but steadily growing seedlings into peat pots to be planted directly in the ground once the danger of frost is past. What you see above are just half of the pots with seedlings. When I was moving them into these pots I was shocked at how long and strong these guys' root systems already are! Native plants all feature very large root systems, which accounts for their drought-tolerance and erosion-prevention ability. But at barely six weeks old?! I had planned to thin out the seedlings, but the robust roots made me feel obligated to preserve as many as possible. Hence, they're crammed into these pots, and I hopefully will be able to extricate them from one another when it's finally time to enter the garden proper.

I suppose my point is that these seeds had a fantastic germination rate and the offspring are strong, making them a veritable joy to cultivate. Even before this (so far) successful project, columbine had become my current favorite plant. It's known as a shade native, but I misjudged the site where I planted mine, and it is most definitely a "partial to full sun" location. Not only are my columbines surviving, they're thriving! And it's not because they're kept moist. In fact, these poor things are left dry unless it rains. (One of the reasons I love natives is because they're drought-tolerant. I'm not a big fan of watering my garden for reasons related to the environment and laziness. I will break down and water if we're having a terrible drought period, such the summer of 2005, but if a plant is to make it in my garden, it had better have long roots with significant water-storage capacity! The prairies covering McHenry County before European settlement made it without sprinklers--so can my garden. But I digress...)

Some of these seedlings are destined for the dry shade locations in my garden, so we'll see how they perform, and I may have to revise my opinion. At this point, however, columbines have proven sturdy and gorgeous in the less-than-ideal location where I planted them; they attract butterflies and dragonflies; and they're reproducing like proverbial bunnies but not by being aggressive. What's not to love? Give 'em a try!

PS-The Last Man Standing is hanging in there so far! I'm too scared to transplant him for fear of disturbing the roots or doing something stupid like dropping him, but so far he's still going!


Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

I've sown Columbine seeds in the summer & had them germinate well, but for me, the best way to do it is just to let them self-sow, then dig up & transplant the seedlings.
I'm a Columbine collector, but I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't grow the native one. I think the orange effect is the reason (I don't do orange). I really should grow it. Oh, the shame!

garden girl said...

I've had columbines in my garden for as many years as I can remember.

I haven't grown the native, but it sounds like it has a lot to recommend it, especially considering dry shade is one thing I have in abundance!

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