Columbine is a tall plant with striking ‘bonnet’-shaped violet-blue flowers – occasionally white, or pink – and with large three-lobed leaves providing attractive blue-green foliage in summer months. A plant of open woodland, scrub and fen on well-drained neutral to alkaline soils, columbine is native to most parts of the British Isles as far north as the Scottish Lowlands. It was first formally recorded in 1571 by Mathias L’Obel1. who was a contemporary of John Gerard.
Columbine, also commonly known as Granny’s bonnet, has about 60 names from around the country including ‘doves-in-the-air’, ‘Granny-jump-out-of-bed’ in Wiltshire and fool’s cap in Yorkshire.2. In his herbal of 1653, Nicolas Culpeper notes that columbine leaves were made into lotions to treat sore mouths and throats. The seeds, taken with wine and a little saffron was a treatment for yellow jaundice.3. However, as with all plants in the buttercup family, columbine is poisonous and should not be used or consumed. The beauty of columbine as a garden plant was recognised in Elizabethan times and included in Thomas Tusser’s list of ‘herbs, branches and flowers for windows and pots’ in Five Hundred Pointes of Goode Husbandrie in 1573.4. Thomas Johnson mentions columbine in a list of plants growing in a fellow apothecary’s garden in Faversham, Kent, visited during his journey around Kent in 1632.5.
A beautiful addition to the garden, columbine grows on most well-drained garden soils, in semi-shade around trees and shrubs and more formally in borders where it makes a lovely companion to red campion. It can be propagated from seed, however if grown near cultivated varieties it will hybridise and the native columbine will not grow to its true character.6. Columbine has inspired many cultivars of different colours, since John Gerard’s time, and these can be bought from garden centres today. But none of them beat the original true Aquilegia vulgaris.
With its nectar secreted at the base of deep flowers, columbine attracts long-tongued bumble bees
such as the garden bumblebee Bombus hortorum
and common carder bumblebee Bombus pascuorum
and occasionally short-tongued ‘robber’ bumble bees. Later, aphids often collect on the stems7.
and leaves, which attract colourful ladybird and hoverfly predators. Don’t remove the seed heads too promptly as these provide habitat for earwigs8.
which include a few small garden ‘pests’ such as aphids in their diet.
1. Pearman, D. 2017. The Discovery of the Native Flora of Britain and Ireland, A compilation of the first records for 1670 species and aggregates, covering Great Britain, Ireland, The Channel Isles and the Isle of Man. Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland. page100.
2. Vickery, R. 2019. Vickery’s Folk Flora, An A to Z of the Folklore and Uses of British and Irish Plants. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London. p 156.
3. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal & English Physician. 1826. This edition published in 2003. Greenwich Editions. London. p 8.
4. Mavor, W.F. ed. 1819. Tusser,T. Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry together with a Book of Huswifery. Cambridge Library Collection. Cambridge University Press. p 122
5. Gilmour, J S L. ed. Johnson, T. Botanical Journeys in Kent & Hampstead. A facsimile reprint with Introduction and Translation of his Iter Plantarum 1629 and Descriptio Itineris Plantarum 1632. p 123
6. Chambers, J. 1987. Elm Tree Books. p 20.
7. Thomas, A. 2010. RSPB Gardening for Wildlife. A&C Black, London. p 191
8. Chinery, M. 1986. The Living Garden. Dorling Kindersley, London. p 81
Page written by Caroline Ware. Compiled by Steve Head