Sunday 25 February 2018

Granny's bonnet back in fashion for summer

IT would appear that there is a touch of the nostalgic in the air these days as the old garden flowers are taken up once again. Perhaps it has to do with the seeming certainties of the past but the old cottage garden flowers -- lupins, delphiniums, hollyhocks, sweet Williams and columbines -- are back in vogue.

Columbine, also called granny's bonnet, or correctly aquilegia, is a classic flower of the cottage garden. It is a native wild flower, though a rare one, located mainly in the centre of the country, with dark purple-blue flowers. There are lots of seemingly wild plants, but these are really just garden escapees.

Aquilegia can appear in gardens as huge highly bred flowers, a hand-span across. But it sets seeds freely and backcrossed to itself, or sharing genetic material with other columbines, it soon throws off the strictures of the flower breeder and appears in its wild form again. The flowers are much smaller on the feral plants, but no less beautiful, and it could be argued that they take on a natural beauty their highly bred cousins do not possess.

The flower is made up of five petals and five pointed tubes, flaring at the mouth and often with a long spur extending out of the back of the flower. The end of the tube holds tiny drops of sweet nectar to attract pollinators. The range of colours is much greater in the large highly bred kinds, ranging from yellow and red to purple, blue, pink, white and often intermediate and mixed colours.

Columbines can be bought as plants, or are easily grown from seeds, which can be sown in seed trays or even in the open soil this month or next. The young plants can be moved to permanent positions in late summer or autumn, disturbing them as little as possible because they sometimes die back if moved roughly.

The foliage is blue-green colour and of a sea-weedy appearance. It forms a rosette of leaves at ground level and in spring, it starts growing early and pushes up a tall stem that can reach to over 60 or 70cm.

Aquilegia self-sows freely but the seed-heads can be taken off the plants after flowering. Self-sowing can create a lovely effect, with new plants coming up near the parents and often in differing shades. Columbine flowers in early summer, bridging the gap between spring and summer.

The plant likes good soil but not very rich. Soil with a good deal of organic material is ideal because this creates good drainage but stays moist and cool. It does poorly in thin, dry soil, often wilting and withering back.

Sunday Independent

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