Eastern Columbine

The eastern columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a perennial wildflower native to much of the eastern U.S. It often grows in rocky or sandy soils and in open woods. Columbines are perennials, but will also readily self-seed if the conditions are favorable. Their self-seeding ability means that they will often form clumps or loose drifts of columbine plants.

The eastern columbine is the only species of columbine native to the eastern U.S. They are an important native wildflower for ruby-throated hummingbirds as they migrate back into our region each spring. Photo credit: James St. John, CC BY 2.0

Although there are multiple species of columbine native to the western U.S., eastern columbine is the only species of columbine native to the eastern U.S. In Kentucky, it blooms from April to June. The red and yellow flowers are attractive to hummingbirds, bumble bees, and sweat bees.

Hummingbirds are the primary pollinators for the red species of columbines in North America, including the eastern columbine. Eastern columbine is often one of the first flowers available for ruby-throated hummingbirds as they migrate into our region each spring. In fact, the range map for eastern columbine overlaps almost perfectly with the U.S. portion of the ruby-throated hummingbird’s range map. The co-adaptation between hummingbirds and the red species of columbines is so great that the red columbines produce nectar with almost twice the sugar content compared to species with blue or yellow flowers. The higher sugar content is presumably an adaptation to be more attractive to hummingbirds.

Many species of bumble bees have long enough tongues that they can reach the nectar by cramming themselves up into the eastern columbine’s flower. In the process, the bumble bees end up coating themselves in pollen which gets deposited on the next flower that they cram themselves up into. However, the rusty-patched bumble bee has been known to chew a hole in the top of the nectar spurs (the pointy parts sticking up on the flower) to easily get at the nectar without having to climb into the flower. When it does so, it fails to serve any role in pollinating the columbine. Sweat bees will also crawl into the columbine flowers to get at the nectar and do get coated in some of the pollen; however, their effectiveness as eastern columbine pollinators is unclear.

Columbines, in general, have become popular wildflowers to include in pollinator gardens. They are becoming increasingly more common in the horticulture industry. In addition to the eastern columbine, other species of columbine from Europe and the western U.S. can also be found in the horticulture industry. However, if you are thinking about planting multiple species of columbine, then you should know that columbine species will often hybridize with each other. This means that if two species are planted close to each other, then they may get cross-pollinated and the resulting seeds may produce plants that are a hybrid of the two species. If maintaining a pure species is important to you, then you should probably only plant one species of columbine in your garden.

I encourage anyone in the eastern U.S. who is looking for a native wildflower that blooms in the spring, is attractive to hummingbirds, can tolerate a range of soils, and appreciates some shade to consider the eastern columbine.

This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.

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