Columbines, a Hybridizer's Delight
from April 1999
The aquilegias, or columbines, are starting to send up flowering stems and are tempting our local hummingbirds into the nursery. Our offerings include both species and deliberate hybrids grown for many years by Nevin Smith. It was our own native Western Columbine, Aquilegia formosa, that started Nevin onto his hybridization project that has continued since 1973 when he found a particularly large, dark-flowered form of our cheery red and yellow columbine on a tributary of the Smith River. He collected seed from these, sowed them, and has continued each year to self-pollinate the best of the progeny for his next year's crop.
While Nevin had Wintergreen Nursery, friends brought him other species of these choice perennials to try, and that led to many more hybrid crosses. The first of these was a double-flowered form of Aquilegia vulgaris or European columbine, in the typical pink and blue shades. Rose Williams of Alpine Nursery in Watsonville gave him a little Aquilegia sibirica (a dwarf) that was a "knock-out" which he has been reselecting for many years now for ever darker and more prolific flowering of the dainty short-spurred, deep purple blossoms. Within one batch of his reselected A. sibirica, a pink flowered mutant appeared, and in subsequent crosses led to the hybrid he calls Aquilegia 'Pink Petticoats', with masses of two-tone pink flowers on 2' flower stems. A second recrossing with the pink A. sibirica and A. vulgaris is Aquilegia 'Rose Ballet' with many rose-pink flowers that remind one of a ballerina in her pink tutu. Other A. vulgaris recrosses have led to Aquilegia 'Northern Lights', a stocky, shorter stemmed vulgaris hybrid with quantities of blue and white flowers, and last year's introduction of Aquilegia 'Midnight Madness' a seed strain of large, deep purplish-black, spurless flowers and Aquilegia 'Maroon Madness', with similar but deep red flowers. Aquilegia 'Dark Star' is a three-way cross among A. caerulea, A. formosa and A. 'Crimson Star'.
Steve Campbell, of Longden Nursery in Sebastopol, gave Nevin the Nora Barlow strain of double red flowers with multiple rows of petals without spurs, which he hybridized with his existing A. vulgaris and A. sibirica strains and came up with even stockier and more floriferous plants with super dark purples and reds. Pete Sugawara, of the old Montebello Nursery gave Nevin a true dwarf columbine that he called Aquilegia formosa nana, which has the bright red and yellow coloring of our native A. formosa, but with slightly more closed flowers, on a very tight, dwarf plant. Nevin has made several crosses with this delightful dwarf and this year we are just beginning to see the results. Reselection will give us several named strains for the future.