Aquilegias - nectar-rich and lovely

aquilegiaAquilegias are lovers of cool, shadier positions and being part of the Ranunculaceae family (named after Rana the frog, they do best in places that avoid full sun). They are promiscuous plants though, so deadhead them unless you want lots of seedlings. These cottage garden essentials take their name from Aquila, Latin for eagle, because the nectar-rich spurs at the back of the flower resemble eagle's talons. Their other common name, columbine, is also related to a bird. If you turn the flowers upside down, the ring of spurs resembles doves drinking around a dish. Another old name, columba is Latin for dove. Granny's bonnets is yet another common name as many are tightly frilled.

aquilegia noraAquilegias are toxic, as are most members of the buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family. Despite that, their seeds were used as one of the six main herbs against pestilence in the Middle Ages. Then known as Herba leonis, the herb of the lion, the sap of aquilegias was said to induce fearlessness - making you as brave as a lion.

Despite being indiscriminate breeders, there are some stable seed strains. These include 'Nora Barlow', a quilled pink and green double named after Charles Darwin's granddaughter who gardened at New Place in Cambridge. Nora collected and grew aquilegias for her experiments on genetics, but her experiments were ruined for several years after she showed her children how to break off the spurs and drink the nectar. Nora Barlow lived until the ripe old age of 104, having had six children. The plant was named after her by Alan Bloom who went on to introduce it in the 1970s. However it was originally recorded by Parkinson in the 16th century, some four hundred years before. In recent years it has spawned other Barlows. The pied black and white 'William Guiness' (syn. 'Magpie') is also a stable strain. Collect the seeds and sprinkle them and this (just like Nora) will come true.

aquilegia yellowAquilegia chrysantha 'Yellow Queen' is the most elegant aquilegia of all, and it flowers for much longer than most. It has delicate blooms with a lemon-yellow cup supported by drooping buttermilk petals and long sweeping spurs that trail backwards. It must be grown in shade, as full sun will wash out the pale flowers and make them look insignificant. It's very stunning under copper beeches. Aquilegias are easy to grow and they have delicate foliage. Make the most of the pretty leaves by cutting the foliage back to nothing in September so that the leaves look pristine in the following spring. Do not move or divide as most have long tap roots.

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