Falling Stars

It’s once again the time of year when aquilegias earn their reputation as cottage garden favourites – and sometime show-garden stars.

Assortment of aquilegia flowers picked from garden

I have been watching the regrowth of our aquilegias this year with my heart in my mouth, after hearing earlier this spring from Carrie, holder of the National Collections at Touchwood Plants, which have been devastated this year with a new and fatal form of downy mildew.

To date, our plants appear untouched, but the disease is spreading fast across the country, threatening the survival of this stalwart of our spring gardens. It is a bittersweet pleasure that I take from our plants this year, knowing that the wonderful collections that I so enjoyed visiting two years ago have been absolutely decimated by this virulent disease.

Bowl of assorted aquilegia flowers

The first aquilegias into bloom  here are reliably the over-the-top pale ruffled pinks in the long border, all flounces, frills and short skirts, and the dark pinks and purples in this and the field border that I prefer. These are soon punctuated with a rash of Lime Sorbet whose pale ivory-green skirts are a little slower out of bud, and a single plant of Red Hobbit, whose spurred flowers are large and well-defined.

Clump of pale pink aquilegias

Early flowering aquilegias

The wonderful long spurred flowers of palest lemon suffused with a blush of apricot on the tall elegant plant I bought at Touchwood two years ago must be my absolute favourite in the garden, and this year the plant has several flowering stems all bursting now from bud to bloom.

Tall aquilegia with pale yellow and apricot flowers


Pale yellow and apricot aquilegia flower

I am particularly fond of yellow varieties of aquilegia – perhaps because they are in the minority here – the A. longissima that I grew from seed shone for just one brief season never to return, although the A. chrysantha raised from seed the same year continue to perform in the front garden.

Long spurred yellow Aquilegia chrysantha flower

Long spurred yellow Aquilegia chrysantha flower

I just love those long narrow spurs, which will always make me think of a jester’s hat. The plants are well suited to the more exposed position in the front garden, only reaching a foot tall.

The deep colours, particularly dark purples, are also favourites, whether single-colour or displaying the white ring of inner petals demonstrated by A. caerulea and A. ‘Red Hobbit’, below, which did not make it into my opening portraits.

Deep purple aquilegia flowers

Aquilegia 'Red Hobbit' flower

The kitchen border is home to more than a dozen Ruby Port plants, which are among the last into bloom, only just beginning to unfurl their dark red stars, an example of which can be glimpsed in the opening photographs. One of these plants, many of which are self-sown seedlings from the original plant given to me by my Mum, has particularly attractive flushed foliage, and I am watching to see whether the flowers have the expected form.

Flushed foliage of aquilegia

Each year brings fresh surprises, as their abundant self-seeding nature and complex genetics give rise to unpredictable variety. Indeed I am watching one seed-raised plant this year with anticipation; the buds just beginning to open already look rather unusual in both colour and form, appearing to be a spiky-looking succession to our native A. vulgaris rather than the longer spurred forms.

Aquilegia buds about to open

Aquilegia buds opening

Surveying the subset in our own humble garden with more than a touch of wonder at the rich assortment of flower and form that this genus contains, with the very real possibility that they could all be wiped out tomorrow, I feel particularly sad for Carrie Thomas, whose tireless passion and enthusiasm for these plants has been dealt an insurmountable blow by the sudden loss of her collections. Who knows whether she will ever be able to build these treasuries back up again? I fervently hope so, as their loss is also a blow to our nation and indeed the whole gardening community.


19 thoughts on “Falling Stars

  1. I have just read of Carrie’s losses on Cathy from Words and Herbs blog. I can imagine her devastation, caring for a national collection is a work of love and all consuming. Aquilegias are the epitome of easy going cheerful really good doers. Downy mildew is the last condition you would expect them to succumb to. Hopefully what she has left can be protected.

    • Fingers crossed she can salvage something of her collections. I know, they’re otherwise such undemanding robust plants, it’s a shock.

  2. What a delightful variety of colours you have, and how sad to think that they are under threat. I do hope yours remain unscathed – please keep us updated. My sister bought me a very small aquilegia from a bazaar stall for £1. I wait in great anticipation to see what colour it turns out to be. But your wide variety of colours is most inspiring and I am tempted to add as many different colours to my own garden.

    • Thank you. The anticipation is such fun – hope you’re soon enjoying a rainbow of columbines too, they can be quite addictive!

  3. Yes, I had heard about this disease affecting Aquliegias, but there doesn’t seem to be much one can do to prevent it spreading. Luckily mine appear to be unaffected so far. The uncertainty about what form / colour they will take each year is a big factor in the popularity of this flower, which is strange when you think about it. People usually want the opposite!

    • No controls, indeed, the only advice is to destroy affected plants as soon as possible to try and limit spread of the disease.
      Ha, you’re right we gardeners are a fickle lot, one minute celebrating unpredictable diversity, the next minute demanding uniformity!

  4. Aquilegia have long been a favourite in our garden and like you I was saddened to hear of the loss to Carrie Thomas’s national collection.
    We must enjoy them while we can.

  5. What a shocking piece of news and simply dreadful for the person holding the national collection. They are one of my favourite plants and I especially love the way they self-seed and appear in unexpected places. That’s a gorgeous yellow variety incidentally.

    • Yes, such a devastating loss and after so many years of hard work – let’s hope that some resistant strains are found! Such pretty flowers at this time of year.

  6. I hadn’t realised there are so many colours of aquilegia. I’ve seen individual plants growing wild recently (of the pale pink kind). Maybe that they are spread out like that will save them?

    • We saw the dark wild variety growing in the Austrian alps last summer which was really exciting to me! Fingers crossed some plants are indeed spared!

  7. Thank goodness all your aquilegias are looking so healthy! and so beautiful too, love that first image of all the different ones you have.

    • Thanks Christina – long may they stay that way! I love them – and was really pleased that the first picture came out as it was in my head 🙂

  8. You have got a gorgeous collection already Sarah, and like you I am eagerly awaiting the ones I grew from Carrie’s seed.

    • Thanks – I hope you are thrilled with what comes from yours! My spiky ones have fully opened now and are rather lovely – must post an update when I have the chance to photograph them.

  9. Thanks for sharing your lovely post and photos; columbine is one of our favorites! I don’t have an issue with powdery mildew attacking ours (yet) although in the high humidity of our summers, it does take a toll on some of our other plants (like zinnias.) Best of luck! Cheers, Ben

    • One of my favourites too – hope the downy mildew doesn’t decimate the population too much. Ah zinnias, I’d like to try growing some, though we don’t really have the heat or sunshine here they’d like!

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