Aquilegia 'Yellow Queen'
They are members of the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup family, named after Rana the frog. The May-flowering, perennial aquilegias prefer cool, dappled shade (rather like frogs) and they grow in a range of soils.
They often produce flowers with spurs full of nectar and there are single and double forms, greatly appreciated by bees. They set copious amounts of seed when happy and self-seed, rather too freely, often producing a range of different seedlings. Most gardeners restrict the number of seedlings by deadheading the majority of their plants after flowering, before the seeds escape. If you want more, it is easier to scatter the mature seed on the ground, once the seedpods split slightly, than sowing seeds in pots.
Our native form is Aquilegia vulgaris and its Latin name comes from aquila meaning eagle - after the talon-shaped spurs at the back of the flower. Another common name is Columbine, the Latin for dove. If you up-end an aquilegia to reveal the spurs, they resemble birds feeding and 'Doves round a Dish', another common name, reflects this perfectly.
These woodland aquilegias have long tap roots so they are drought-tolerant. Their rounded foliage is attractive, even in winter, but it looks much more impressive when given a late-autumn haircut. Cut the leaves right back and fresh foliage will appear.
Stable seed strains
Most aquilegias are promiscuous plants and seedlings can produce a whole range of flower colours and shapes from tight granny bonnet to wispy single. However some strains are stable and always come true from seed. They include ‘Munstead White’. This white strain, selected by Gertrude Jekyll, produces boxy flowers with green tips. This is very effective in shade. ‘Nora Barlow’, a semi-double white, green and pink with quilled petals, also comes true. Named after Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, by Alan Bloom in the 1960s, it was actually described by the botanist John Parksinson in the early 17th century. This ‘stellata’ form has given rise to a Barlow series including ‘Black Barlow’ and ‘Green Apples’. The black and white ‘Magpie’ (which seems identical to ‘William Guiness’) is another stable seed strain. Plant these in groups of five, seven or nine.
Other good, hardy forms
Aquilegia chrysantha ‘Yellow Queen’ (pictured, from www.crocus.co.uk)
This later-flowering lemon, will-o'-the-wisp aquilegia, has swept-back spurs and fragrance - find it a warm, sheltered position where it gets afternoon sun so that the fragrance travels. This pallid plant makes more of an impact in shade. It's a much easier and more enduring plant than the similar A. longissima, which is very short-lived for me.
Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Ruby Port’
This Chelsea Flower Show favourite has warm, claret-red double flowers.
How to grow
Find a cooler part of the garden that enjoys dappled shade. If you have plenty of seed (from a gardening friend) start by sprinkling seeds straight onto the ground in late-summer. These will germinate by the following spring. However aquilegias will self-sow into choice plants, so only sprinkle the seeds where it will not matter.
If it’s hard to find seed from someone’s garden, order three or four plants from a good nursery and plant those. They will soon multiply. Tap-rooted plants tolerate poor soil, but they need deep soil to thrive. Close to trees and shrubs is ideal.
Commercial packets of seeds are often not very successful because aquilegias have a short period of viability. They need to be sown in late-summer when fresh. You may succeed, but it is less certain. Prick out when young: the tap roots develop early on.
May-flowering aquilegias provide good vertical accents in woodland settings. They are superb with tulips and Aliium ‘Purple Sensation’. They can also be used with hellebores and trollius to great effect.
Long Acre Plants - www.plantsforshade.co.uk
Worlds End Garden Nursery Worcester - www.worldsendgarden.co.uk