Aquilegias have wonderful foliage that emerges early in the year, creating tuffets of bright green among the sharp verticals of daffodils and other bulbs. They are among the most telling of springtime plants, both for foliage and for flowers.
Aquilegia longissima is an exquisite flower. Its petals are a pale, soft, buttery yellow, and its spurs - of a deeper yellow, and sometimes up to 6in (15cm) long - are swept elegantly back, giving the whole flower the look of a ship's figurehead.
Long-spurred hybrids have been developed from it and from several other species: its close cousin A. chrysantha; A. formosa, which has dainty red-and-yellow flowers; and A. coerulea, a graceful blue-and-white columbine with finely divided "maidenhair" leaves.
The genus aquilegia is widespread in the northern hemisphere: Europe and Asia, as well as America, have their own columbines. Many of the North American species are short-lived, but they can be grown easily from seed.
Aquilegias lend themselves to cottagey or semi-wild settings. Most relish dappled shade. They love deep, rich soil. Most garden varieties do not resent clay, but alpine types prefer well-drained loam. When planting, work in extra humus: old muck or garden compost is best. Mulch with the same material.
Remove seed heads before they disperse their contents, otherwise the parent plant may be crowded out by its own offspring. Save the seed and sow it fresh if you want more plants elsewhere.
Try A. longissima contrasted against the darkly dramatic foliage of Cimicifuga simplex var. simplex Atropurpurea Group or in combination with pale-lemon buttercups and golden grasses. Plant blue A. alpina as it grows in the wild, with Geranium sylvaticum and trollius. A. formosa and A. canadensis, both of which are soft red and yellow, look at home with Primula cockburniana, a small asiatic primula with vermilion flowers.