Photographs by Sabina Rüber

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Pink Layered'

'Pink Layered'

Aquilegia viridiflora Chocolate Soldier

A. viridiflora 'Chocolate Soldier'

Aquilegia vulgaris Nora Barlow

'Nora Barlow'

Aquilegias are characterful little spring flowers that bloom at a time when other flowers are in short supply. Strictly short-lived perennials, they develop quickly, flowering the second year, so can be treated as biennials. Aquilegias are also valuable for their mounds of pretty fresh green foliage which provide a good foil for tulips and other spring bulbs. In the UK, Aquilegia vulgaris is the species from which most plants are derived, but the family is diverse, with many different species spread across the globe. In North America, species include the white and mauve A. caerulea, the official state flower for Colorado, and A. canadensis, which has quirky red and yellow flowers, introduced to Europe in the 17th century by John Tradescant. 

Most aquilegias are easy-going cottage garden flowers, and the many forms of A. vulgaris tend to cross-fertilise readily to produce a range of weird and wonderful crosses, so if you want the purity of a single strain, make sure you plant one type only. Of the A. vulgaris relatives, ‘Nora Barlow’, named after Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, is one of the most well-loved for cottage gardens, with double blooms, deep rose-pink with creamy-white tips. In the same series, you can find black, pink, blue and white Barlows. For anyone seeking something more unusual, the unusual A. viridiflora is a beautiful species from parts of Japan, China and Siberia, with delicate greeny-brown flowers that hang down like little bells. The cultivar 'Chocolate Soldier' is available from Chiltern Seeds

Aquilegias are perennials or biennials, and most grow best in dappled shade in a good loamy soil. Sow direct in September, or in seed trays in spring, to be planted out in autumn to flower the following year. Sow thinly in seed trays on top of the compost as they need light to germinate. Keep them at 18-20C, moving them to a cooler place once germinated, and then prick out and grow on when big enough. 

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