June 9, 2014


Left to right - 'Aquilegia caerulea Songbird series  'Nightingale', 'Songbird Series 'Bluebird' and Songbird Series 'Dove'

Do you remember when you were a little kid? Mom's cosmos and zinnias seemed to be more than 6 feet tall? Those Larkspur's and asters towered over the top of your head, and fragrant roses where at nose level? Those were all great, but there was something magical about the delicate dangling blossoms of Columbine, which hung just at eye-height. Well, then you were only about 3 feet high yourself, but just tall enough that you could peer deep inside those long spurs of Columbine, the trumpets of daylilies and giant, papery blooms of Oriental Poppies with their deep, black boss of stamens (and usually with a surprise bumblebee bumbling around inside) - nostalgia in the garden, the charm of these vintage flowers is often lost to the more sophisticated of us - experienced gardeners who generally snub those plants that are often sturdy survivors. Denizens of abandoned or ill-kempt perennial borders. Plants for the lazy gardener. The amateur, and not as 'hip' or stylish as a 'Patty's Plum' Papaver or a 'Nora Barlow' aquilegia.

Songbird Nightingale, Songbird 'Cardinal' and Songbird 'Robin'

But sometimes I like to challenge the elitist not-so-deep inside me, for I am man enough to admit that although I may grow heirloom leeks and poach them with a homemade mustard vinaigrette, I still can appreciate a good egg McMuffin ( with Canadian Bacon, not sausage - come on). And so it goes with my gardening -- I do raise rare South African bulbs from seed, and high alpine narcissus from Morocco, but I also love to indulge in tall, golden marigolds and scarlet geraniums (within reason, of course), and even though a hybrid columbine mix may seem like an exotic perennial to many new gardeners, to those of us who spend hours trying to track down rare Podophylum, it is something that usually gets back-listed in favor of endangered primula seed from the Himalaya.

But remember - epic Egg McMuffins, baby.


Sometimes simple, common -- even hybrid, is OK.

It can even be ….awesome.

Meet the 'Song Bird' series of columbine, a genus with many hybrids, selections, strains and species, mostly short-lived garden perennials that we seem to find self-seeded in precious spots around the garden, but rarely where we want them to grow.  This strain, bred in the 1980's and 1990's and now finding its way into the trade slowly, is best when grown from seed yourself, not just because you can get a large, cost-effective colony of typically costly plants, you can get all the colors from the strain, not just the one or two that commercial propagation nurseries are focusing on right now ( mostly the award winning white selection called 'Dove'). If you are like me, and can't make up your mind about color, then this mix is for you - gotta get them all!

Left to right - Songbird 'Dove, (white) Songbird 'Bluebird' (lavender), Songbird 'Bunting' (violet), Songbird 'Robin' (pale pink), Songbird 'Chaffinch' (mauve - only available from European purchased seed), and Songbird 'Nightingale' (red-violet).

Many of us who garden in the north recognize this genus as a semi-precious woodland perennial, simple, sturdy, a little magical,  a-lot old-fashioned, and yet it continues to be garden favorite for the romanticist that exists deep inside many of us.  They are in many ways like common garden Lupines or orange, Oriental Poppies - sturdy plants, once established, and although when it comes to plants, ‘sturdy’ can be a good thing, it can also mean boring, but with this strain, there is nothing boring. Brilliant color, tall stems that are strong, long-lasting flowers that will provide color in a border for nearly a month, and large, if not enormous blossoms, some as large as the palm of my hand. This strain is so spectacular that Joe even said to me this weekend "Hey, you should raise more of those over there), pointing at my border of tall columbine.

In the garden, my plants are standing up to rain, late snow and high winds. Very few petal shatter, and many remain open at the same time.

The selection had many nice lavender and purple selections, notice how bright the purple in the foreground is ( Songbird 'Bluejay' a vibrant purple, and one of three selections in the blue shades found in the mix. Look at the size of these blossoms!

Aquilegia caerulea Songbird Series 'Dove' was awarded an AGM selection by the  RHS, and one can see why.

I often overlook columbine at the nursery. Not because they don't make good garden plants, 9they generally do)  but because there are often more exciting plants to purchase, and I become distracted. So, you know when during the winter we make lists of plants that we might order? Aquilegia seem to always make my long list, but they are cut from the list sometime around February probably for the same reason - I find better, more interesting plants, and, I sometimes believe that they made my long list simply because the photos reminded me of summer, and of course, the plants start with the letter 'A'. 

My mind was changed a few years ago, while on a botanizing trip to the Swiss alps,  I saw some of these incredible, tall large flowers columbine that reminded me those impossible-to-grow seed catalog images from the 1970's showing varieties like McKanna Giants. I longed for a vase of those, all multicolored and flouncy. Finally, I've achieved it - and here's how:

Seedling of my 'Song Bird's series of columbine where started in the greenhouse in January, and set out into the woodland border last May, along with some Primula denticulata.

My ‘Songbird’ series seed came from Jelitto seeds in Germany. It's hard to find in the US, unless you are a commercial grower, and even then, you would need to purchase a large amount. The see is costly, so I warn you, but the German seed is available pre-chilled, and at about $50 US a packet, was still worth it if you consider the ease of culture, the fact that you can get all of the colors, even those not available in the US, and the obvious cost savings of raising nearly a hundred plants that cost me less than a dollar each, compared to a $17 retail price, if you can find them ( White Flower Farm is currently sold out, and they only carry three colors).

Seedling are strong enough to set out into the garden by mid May from a January sowing indoors. The idea site, being an eastern exposure. Plants will bloom a bit during the first season, more during the second season, which are the images you see in bloom in this post, but they will mature to full-size plants in their third or fourth season.

My seed arrived in late November, and since the seed was pre-chilled, I could sow it immediately. Germination occurred within  three weeks (in the greenhouse),  and by February, I had dozens of seedlings i( I admit that I even tossed a few dozen into the compost pile!). The strong seedlings wet divided and planted into 4" pots in late winter.  Aquilegia are sturdier than one may at first believe, as seedlings, at least for woodland perennials. I find that even the rarer species germinate well ( with some outdoor stratification for a few months in the snow). I always end up with more than I need.

Now in their second year,  the blossoms plants are taller, and covered in flowers. They will reach their full maturity in 3 - 5 years, when the plants will really shine. I can't wait.

While on the subject of perennials from seed - don’t’ limit yourself  to just columbine when you decide to raise your own perennials from seed, companies like Jelitto carry a number or pre-chilled seed ( you'd think that I work for them, or that they pay for a sponsored post, but fear not. I just have great luck with their seed - especially their pre chilled seed. It makes starting difficult-to-grow perennials and biennial a bit easier, and I encourage you to try it. 

 As for the rest of this Aquilegia story, I grow the seedlings on in the 4" pots using a soil mixture similar to what professional nurserymen use – which is 50% Pro mix BX, and 50% composted wood chips ( yeah, the kind you order for the spring garden to mulch with - I just buy year-old wood mulch).

The color selection of the Songbird Series of Aquilegia is unmatched, and I am so impressed with how long they last when cut and brought into the house. Nearly one week now.

Mixes this nice don't come to market easily, it takes a team of breeders, and a long breeding program to perfect the selections. The Songbird Series was no different - this  hybrid series has a long history that started back in the 1980's, and it's story involves at least two breeding programs. The breeders used many species and selections in creating this mix, even the afore mentioned strain  McKanna Giants, which formed the foundation of this very robust yet complex cross. Breeders also reportedly used A. skinneri, A. californica, A. chrysantha ( which I can see in the only solid color in the mix 'Goldfinch'), A. canadensis and a number of other strains. It's a real mutt of a mix, but like all mutts, delightful. It is still sold under the botanic name of Aquilegia caerulea, as it remains the primary species used in the strain. I am not certain why, or how the other species were involved.

If we are to thank anybody, it would be Chalie Weddie of Colorado Native Plants who started the breeding program with Aquilegia caerulea that led to this mixture in the early 1980’s. It was later picked up by Ball Seed Company Weddie's death in 1986, and finally the series was expanded and improved by Ball's/Pan American's  Ellen Leue. One of America's leading plant breeders today. We should not forget that plant breeding at this level is essentially product development, so as a product developer myself, I can respect what it takes to create something new, beautiful and spectacular.

"Bunting' ( in the EU) or Bluejay, in North America, is a nice, strong blueish purple that looks 'Photoshopped'
( it isn't -- I promise - and I know Photoshop).

Copywriters for the nursery trade, have no shortage of words when describing the benefits this selection offers home gardeners. It seems each color of the strain ( each color named for a different, appropriately colored songbird: Cardinal, Chaffinch Goldfinch, Bunting  (Blue Jay in the US), makes the strain somehow even more desirable, at least to a birder like me.

One writer even claims that the blue selection ‘Bluebird’ come close to ‘A homage to the large wild blue Colorado columbine” ( not quiet, but perhaps in photos it does and the blue state flower of Colorado is indeed Aquilegia caerulea, these are pretty close, but larger than the wild species). The final hybrid series, now broken out into eleven distinct colors, is mostly bicolored, and it has even had the distinction of having two color selections awarded the prestigious Award of Garden Merit (AGM) by the  Royal Horticultural Society. ‘Dove’, the only completely white selection in the series in particular has been isolated and awarded as well as ‘Bunting’, a deep lavender-blue selection.


  1. This post is absolutely fabulous. I love Columbines and have often grown them from seed. All the Columbines in my garden now are from self seeding but this spring wild rabbits dicovered my garden and the columbines, they just have been eating the flowers, stems were left... Your mixture is ever so beautiful, enjoyed your story and the wonderful pictures.

  2. Enjoyed the tale you spun of your journey planting these seeds and growing the plants. The colors of these flowers are amazing and the photos are just gorgeous!

  3. Beautiful aquilegias. Can't say they have ever really struck a chord with me before but that Songbird nightingale is going on my 'Plants I need' list!

  4. I enjoyed the backstory on growing these plants and the history of their development. I enjoy the native Aquilegia formosa growing in the woods here, but unfortunately the deer eat most of them around my house, so I won't invest money or garden space in these beauties.

  5. Anonymous9:47 AM

    And Roseville pottery, no less!

  6. Great post, Matt. I started some McKanna Giants seeds that I'd purchased form Botanical Interests in a half seed tray back in late January and left them outside until sometime in March. After a few weeks indoors, I'd forgotten about them. Then one day, I noticed that about 75% of the seeds had germinated. Now I have more plants than I know what to do with. Interestingly, I've also planted some within a border alongside Primula denticula, which I'd also started from seeds. I can't wait to see how it all turns out next year. You've gotten me very excited!

  7. Columbine connects me to my grandmother, hollyhocks, and that giant country garden that fed the whole family, what wonderful memories.

  8. Anonymous10:20 PM

    All new to the Songbird Bunting Columbine 2 years ago. I was wondering what was going to happen now? This is how I saw it with two plants: They both were very tall and bushy the second year and this year the main plants were gone and there are many off springs - seedling about a foot and a half tall spread over about 6 feet around this empty hole. Can I move the seedlings? I think they are done blooming now! Will these all come back next year? I am in New York about 5 miles from Lake Ontario. Thanks

  9. 2015 Stokes Seed Catalog offer the Songbird Columbine mix 20 seed for $5.25. They make wonderful additions to Wedding flowers.

  10. I would really like to know how big the flowers are


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