Columbine, a flower meant for every garden, is a study in irony. Let’s start with its name. Columbine is derived from columbo, the Latin word for dove. If you take the flower and turn it upside down, its five spurs are said to resemble five doves huddled together. By contrast, this flower’s scientific name is Aquilegia, which comes from the Latin word for eagle. This name was given because those same long spurs, observed as they wind down from the main body of the flower, are thought to mimic the talon of an eagle. And, as nature would have it, ironically enough, hungry and predaceous eagles are known for poaching on peace-loving and defenseless doves.
Another ironic dimension to columbine is its delicate appearance, a facade that masks its toughness as a garden perennial. Columbine flowers grow out from the stem at an angle, as if bent in submission, like slaves bowed before their master. Yet columbine is not subservient at all, as it can live through the summer months with just occasional sips of water, earning a reputation for drought tolerance. It also exhibits significant cold hardiness and certain columbine species are even found growing in sub-arctic habitats. Its leaves are blue-green and softly lobed, not at all by accident, since beautiful foliage — striking in color, shape, and/or texture — is a characteristic shared by fellow members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae).
Finally, how ironic that the word “columbine,” derived from “dove” and thus associated with the universal dove of peace, should also be the name of a school associated with tragic and violent death.
I happened upon a wonderful golden columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) the other day. Native to the Southwest, this species is unusual in its devlopment of a bushy growth habit — the more familiar, hybrid columbines are rather spindly — and large, clear yellow flowers that open up over a period of several months. Hybrid columbines, more frequently seen in the nursery trade, are known for their harlequin, two-color, more ostentatious flowers, but I have noticed that the single, solid color coulmbines, typically seen in blue or yellow, flower more heavily and over a longer period of time than the hybrids.
In the Valley and other inland locations, columbines grow most happily in partial sun to near shade conditions, while they will accept full sun, too, along the coast. As for wildlife visitors, hummingbrids dip their long beaks into columbine flower spurs to suck out nectar and certain butterflies, with their expanding proboscises, find a way to sip this nectar, too. At the same time, deer and rabbits are not known to eat columbine, perhaps because of the toxic substances this species contains, especially in its roots and seeds. If you have a horse, make sure not to feed it columbine although the flowers, which are sweet tasting, may be consumed by humans in small quantites without ill effects. One bonus of growing columbines is that they stand up well in vase arrangements and another bonus is the ability of their seeds to germinate in every type of soil, inclduing soil that dries out slowly due to the presence of clay or other elements that impair drainage.
Anemone is an important genus in this same (buttercup) family of plants. Spring blooming poppy anemones (Anemone coronaria) grow from bulbs and flower in the pink-red-purple spectrum. Most poppy anemones can grow in sun or shade but the flaming red cultivar indigenous to Israel, known as kalanit, thrives in sun only. Fall blooming, shade-loving Japanese anemones (Anemone x hybrida), with tuberous to fibrous roots, grow to the stature of airy sub-shrubs in a single season, die to the ground after bloom, and then return again the following year. Their flowers are either white or some nuance of pink, to the accompaniment of handsome foliage.
Tip of the Week: Some plants are so special that they deserve to be written about every year when they are in bloom. One of these plants is ground morning glory (Convolvulus mauritanicus). Native to Italy and North Africa, this is a classic Mediterranean plant, which means it is eminently suitable for Los Angeles gardens. This is more than just a ground cover that, virtually invisible throughout the winter and early spring, suddenly bursts into bloom. It is, in fact, a closely woven blanket of gramophone shaped lavender-blue flowers that will horizontally spread out along the surface of the earth, or hang down like a flower-embroidered curtain from a balcony planter box.