Newsletter of the Ranunculaceae Group

Spring 2012

        A is for Aquilegia ....and admirable, adorable, alluring, amazing, appealing, arresting, astonishing, astounding, attractive, awe-inspiring................

 Carrie Thomas of Touchwood, Swansea, writes about her passion for these plants. An avid Aquilegia collector, she holds both the National Plant Collections.

Note from Carrie, I've added further photos, which wasn't possible in the Newsletter format, though it's a bit messy!

Sphere of rain on aquilegia leaf 

 Is it the intricate, unusual shapes of flowerTouchwood range of flower shapes & colours in 'Elite' mixs found in the Ranunculaceae that attracts us?  Certainly that was one of the reasons that drew me to my first granny’s bonnet as a child, also the way it rapidly sprouted from ‘nothing’ each year with wonderfully shaped leaves that caught the raindrops and made rolling balls of them.  As an adult I discovered that there is a satisfyingly broad range of colours from white through reds and blues to the darkest almost-blacks. Additionally there are many variations on the basic flower shape within the genus, as well as additional flower shapes that have been grown by cottage gardeners for centuries here in the UK.

 Let me take you on a walk around a few of the plants in my two National Plant Collections of Aquilegia. 

   FLOWER SHAPES & COLOURSAquilegia five doves in a circle columbine means dove

Let’s start with the simple, single flowers. One of the common names, columbine, means ‘dove’: can you see the five doves sitting in a circle in the photo?  Cultivars of Aquilegia vulgaris (a British native) comprise my first National Collection. The wild form is a slightly-purpley blue, however selection over centuries now gives us a wide range of colours, including the delightful white-centred bicolored ones, which look fantastic in the garden. Aquilegia vulgaris ‘William Guiness’ (also known as ‘Magpie’) has a dramatic almost-black and white flower, and lasts about 3-7 years.

 I really like marbled blue, (marbled is the term I use when white is mixed in with the other colour of blue, purple or pink). Marbled blues range from a subtle ice blue through powder blue to a light indigo or denim colour.



 There are many sorts of double-flowered types. Simple doubling gives a lovely frilly effect, such as this lovely dark blue and white, known as ‘Adelaide Addison’.  Aquilegia 'Strawberry Icecream' I love the straight edges of the pleated doubles, luckily there’s loads to choose from such as Strawberry Icecream is pink and white, and ‘Strawberry Milk’ is a marbled pink.

Aquilegia pompom form in pink

 Other doubles have even more petals, such as marbled blue double ‘Tower Light Blue’. Pompom forms may have an amazing 100 petals instead of five!

Aquilegia vulgaris petals have hooked nectar spurs and are pollinated by bumble bees. Around these cornucopia-shaped petals are flat ‘petals’ which are actually sepals, and sometime these sepals (rather than the petals) are doubled to give a spiky pompom effect. Aquilegia 'Nora Barlow'One particularly lovely one used to be known as the rose columbine, but is now available as ‘Nora Barlow’. It has old-rose-pink sepals which shade through cream to green at the tips. It is unique, do grow it, although there are concerns that the ones grown currently are not so well formed or long lived as the original of this name. Unlike many other aquilegias, ‘Nora Barlow’ tends to come true from seed as, because there is no nectar, thAquilegia 'Blue Fountain' introduced by Touchwoodere is no insect cross-pollination. The same is true for all the Barlow relatives now available, of which ‘Black Barlow’ is the most sultry. The white form is available as ‘White Barlow’ and ‘Irish Elegance’ (anyone know the difference/s between the two?). All white flowers are green in bud, and ‘Green Apples’ keeps the green colouring for longer before aging to white.

 Here is another flower form (left) aptly known by gardeners as clematis-flowered, these are botanically termed stellata or star forms. I have introduced a few including this one, named ‘Blue Fountain’ which is a marbled blue-purple shade and ‘Sweet Dreams’ with green-tipped pink flowers over variegated leaves. I’ve wanted to select from this latter to produce one with golden foliage, unfortunately the genetic makeup of Aquilegia is preventing that particular desire from being fulfilled. Raising golden-leaves seedlings is easy enough, and getting the right pink colouration, but they all have had doubled flowers rather than the clean, clear lines of the parent with its well-defined central raised circle on the best of the flowers.The Secret Garden at Touchwood aquilegias


Come, now follow me over the stile into next doors garden, where my collection has over-spilled through lack of space here, careful, watch your step, as I tell you a little about my second National Collection.


There are many species of Aquilegia, although I find none grow as well here as the vulgaris ones. Many do not even survive past their first winter (or even first summer) in the conditions here in South Wales. Some alpines are specialist plants, but many others also need conditions which I cannot supply here where all seedlings have the same treatment (basically put into the garden soil as soon as possible and grown on without any further attention that year). Aquilegia Touchwood's 'Volcano!' mix, doubles with yellow including apricotsMany others are frustrating as they act as a biennial and die after flowering eg Aquilegia buergeriana ‘Calimero’, and many of the red & yellow North American species. So when I grew some double forms from these Americans, double yellows, double red & yellow, double orange & yellow, I was interested but not enthusiastic. That changed when I looked at one and thought ‘that’s its THIRD year of’s perennial!  I was hooked, again, by aquilegias, this time doubles with yellow in (a colour which doesn’t occur with A. vulgaris, but abounds in many guises in the N American species). It’s now been many years that I’ve bred these sorts but no strain has yet become stable enough to name. I thought I was there once, and even ran a competition to name the cultivar....only to find that the true-to-type offspring were proving much shorter lived than the mother plant. A ‘flowers-then-dies-so-you-have-to-buy-more’ plant may be some seed-producer's dream, but for me it’s a disappointment and a waste of time & resources, so that’s one I’m still working on. Aquilegia Touchwood's 'Dragon's Breath' mix from red & yellow doubles

 Instead I’m distributing my ‘babies’ not as seed of cultivars, but as seed collected from specific plants, and as special mixes, defined by the colouration of the parent plant. This means other people can grow these forms and share in the very special gene pool that I’ve eAquilegia Touchwood's 'Shooting Stars' mix of yellow doublesncouraged.  The first such mix I sold was ‘Volcano!’ seed from any double with yellow in, including apricots. As I now grow more of these enticing plants, I’ve been able to separate them out even more, so 2011 saw the launch of ‘Shooting Stars’ (yellow doubles) whereas this year I’m pleased to offer ‘Dragon’s Breath’ (well coming from Wales, what else could I call it?) taken from red & yellow double flowers.  With these last two expect about 20% to come ‘as expected’ eg from ‘Dragon’s Breath’ you may get about a fifth with red & yellow double flowers, however those flowers may be very different in shape, the way they are held on the stem, the amount of doubling, and size of flower or plant as well as the actual colour hues to their parent plant. What of the other 80%? Well, there may be yellow, blushed yellow, pink and yellow, or apricot, singles and doubles, as well as more ordinary sorts.   Better fun than any other lottery! 


Time now to wend our way back out of this small but crammed garden, past the nurseryTouchwood aquilegia nursery rows beds where over 1000 new plants are raised from seed each year, the tiny lawn that gets tinier each year, the miracle bed that amazingly gave me more growing space when I thought the garden was full, and back out to the lane in Clyne Valley Country Park near National Cycle Route 4.  But wait, pause awhile here and chat with me a little more, for what can this endearing plant be? Grown from seed purporting to be Aquilegia caerulea, this beauty displays non of the colour or size of bloom of its purported parent. It’s a white that is just slightly difSlender white 734 Touchwood aquilegiaferent in shape and tone to our A. vulgaris white, (shown in the photo to the left of the unknown one) and is fairly long lived (about 5 years or so) and appears to come true from seed, or at least true enough to distinguish it from other whites.  Note I think the digital image probably enhances the yellow tone slightly People have suggested Aquilegia buergeriana in one of its lighter forms (flavescens) but that’s a species that has never been easy (or even likely) to survive here let alone thrive. What can this mystery plant be? If you’ve ideas, do let me know. My email (preferred) is or address is Touchwood, 4 Clyne Valley Cottages, Killay, Swansea, SA2 7DU. To see more aquilegias than you ever dreamed possible, do visit the Touchwood collections which are usually at their best from mid May (A. vulgaris cultivars) to mid-June (doubles with yellow). There’s loads to see also at the website especially on the aquilegia seedlist page, as well as practical help and information on sowing and growing them.



Further information:

Columbines: Aquilegia, Paraquilegia & Semiaquilegia. Robert Nold, Timber press ISBN 0-88192-588-8

A Guide to Aquilegias: sowing, growing & breeding. 90 mins DVD, Carrie Thomas




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