Name: Aquilegia chrysantha
Zones (3)4 to 9(10), varying by plant origin
12 to 36 inches
12 to 24 inches
Seasonal color, perennial or mixed border, ground cover, wildflower gardens
Showy yellow flowers, blue green foliage
Every time I have visited my favorite Tucson wildflower garden, golden columbine has greeted me with its bright yellow flowers. This is remarkable because I have frequented the garden in nearly every month of the year. What a departure from the Memorial Day columbines I knew growing up in the Midwest!
The columbines are members of the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family along with Delphinium, Clematis and many others. Golden columbine or Aquilegia chrysantha is one of many Aquilegia species contributing to the modern columbine hybrids that most gardeners are familiar with. A number of yellow-flowered forms likely have golden columbine in their ancestry.
Golden columbine is a clump forming plant with showy, lemon yellow flowers on vertical scapes. When in bloom, plants may be 2 or even 3 feet high. Plants are 1 to 2 feet in width. The blue-green foliage is medium to fine in texture and might be described as lacy or fern-like.
Aquilegia chrysantha is native in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It often follows riparian belts and grows at a variety of elevations. Climate varies with elevation, and this columbine tolerates that change. It grows in the temperate, snowy ranges and into the desert valley floors. Tucson plants have peak bloom in March, with potentially some bloom all the time, and they grow seemingly year-round. In colder climates, plants will likely continue to bloom intermittently throughout the growing season, after their initial spring flush.
Photos courtesy of John A. Eustice
Golden columbine is adaptable in the garden setting. You'll see this Aquilegia used in a wide variety of positions from dry to wet. In the Southwest, this plant grows well in a variety of light levels as well. I know of a very good looking planting on the north side of a looming skyscraper in all day shade. Excellent stands grow in full sun, also. Golden columbine appears at home alongside more traditional garden plants like roses and annuals, while helping to soften the more rugged appearance of many desert species. In the perennial garden, the golden yellow flowers show up best close to the front. Use golden columbine in drifts and small masses. Plantings can even serve as effective groundcover. In Tucson gardens this plant is not aggressive.
Division of established clumps will work, but seed is the best way to propagate columbine. Fresh seed germinates easily within weeks of sowing. Young plants grow quickly, especially when days are long. Standard container culture using a porous organic media works well. Once mature, plants can bloom without vernalization or cold treatment. I have not seen pests on Aquilegia chrysantha in Tucson, but issues may appear in other areas. Leaf miner can be a problem on Aquilegia species in some parts of the country.
The columbines are generally a showy group of garden plants. Golden columbine shares their many good traits. It is a standout because of its adaptability and long season of bloom. Southwest residents recognize this columbine as their own, and visitors are reminded of a favorite from back home. Many will be tempted to try it in gardens outside the Southwest. Aquilegia chrysantha is a winner just about anywhere.
John A. Eustice
Horticulturist and freelance garden writer