By Jan Boone
For the hearty and more persistent gardeners among us, braving the challenges of germinating flowering perennial plant seed, then growing and transplanting seedlings is an interesting area to research and pursue. Frequently though, it’s often a lengthy and frustrating process. Put obstacles aside momentarily and let’s start with a simple flower we all know, the Columbine.
How many of you reading this posting recognize the title quote above as the first line of our state song? Sitting here at my laptop, gazing out at 8” of snow on my back hillside, it’s hard to think flowering, colorful thoughts while the garden is buried underneath a white blanket. But I can’t stop imagining this ‘purple dusted’ flower. (Again, a descriptive phrase from our state song).
This delicate flower has become a true favorite of mine. Up until late this last summer, I had a small bed of Columbine growing by my front deck and another by my small water feature in the back yard. Because there is no fencing around my yard, these small beds were protected by 4’ high cages with laces on top to discourage curious noses trying to detect an instant snack! Alas, as the drought took us well into early Fall, I came home one day to discover the cages around my front bed had been knocked over and the Columbine eaten to stubs. My Columbine are planted in memory of special people I’ve lost. It was a hard picture to see that afternoon, yet the snow covering the hillside this morning, pushes me to look forward in a renewed planning effort for these beds to emerge again next Spring.
Initially I know I’ll need to rely on Garden Center help for blooming plants this year, but with luck, perhaps germinating some seeds will assist my efforts for next year. Allow me to explain how I became so enamored by these flowers: On the SE side of my house, under some pines I noticed two purple & white flowers growing happily, partially hidden off an uphill path frequented by deer and elk. I have watched with wonder over the years how these true natives manage to survive, some years blooming happily and other years staying dormant for lack of water or simply veiled from far sighted critters! These flowers have come to be welcomed landscape visitors who do their own thing while I take pleasure in just knowing they are there. These Rocky Mountain Aquilegia are just some of the native perennials for our higher elevations, self-seeding and using the cold and snow to their growing advantage. (Note: There are a variety of Columbine seeds available in Catalogs and Garden Centers, so be careful in choosing. It can impact the successful germination for heirlooms, hybrids or seed you’ve collected.)
The Native Columbine are among the hardiest of our flowering plants. Colorado has the Blue and Golden varieties; however, I’d also like to note the Red Columbine Aquilegis canadensis. This is a charming small red/yellow variety that attracts hummingbirds and 4 types of bees. This is native to our East Coast and Canada up to Zone 8, but I’ve also seen this plant growing in multiple diverse zones from South Dakota to California’s Bay Area; also, Southern California, Seattle and my former backyard in Metro Denver. Aquilegia McKana group columbine are popular varieties with their large multi-colored flowers. These colors will change for each new blooming cycle, sometimes merely by the pollinators who may have visited the plant or by the hybridization of two parent seeds.
Similar to many native flowering plants, cold stratification is a good method to encourage seed germination, especially for those seeds with hard, waxy seed coats where cold and water are needed. There is a good reference document from Missouri Botanical Gardens about Native Seed Propagation Methods. Also, Starting Plants Indoors from Seeds by the University of Missouri Extension office. This latter document provides good guidelines on temperature and germination timing. Cold stratification basically gives seeds a jump-start in the germination process that native wildflowers get by just being subjected to outside elements (cold and water), especially during winter months. Take stock of your patience when it comes to cold stratification and seed germination. Prepare to be tested!! This is not a case of simply soaking seeds in water overnight to help soften seed coats. Just like a dormant cold period for bulbs, many perennial seeds do need cold in the germination process. Do your homework. There are numerous methods to try but The University of Illinois Extension office offers this following simple cold stratification process: 1) Place seed in a plastic bag w/moist sand or sphagnum moss. Close bag. 2) Place bag in a corner of your frig for 4 weeks. *** Do not freeze bag as this slows down the germination.***
This two-step pre-conditioning process allows you to sow seeds indoors in much the same manner you may already do for vegetable seedlings or annual flowers. Remember perennial seeds are notoriously slow to germinate, often 3-4 weeks or longer. They also recommend that if you get no germination, place your container outside for sun and water during the summer. Seeds could still germinate over several years If you are lucky enough to have germination and eventual seedlings, treat them for the special gifts they are!
Do not expect seedlings to produce flowers the first year, but with luck, you will eventually be rewarded with that purple dusted flower. Or if you’ve germinated hybrid McCanna Columbine seeds, you may have a rainbow in your own garden bed. In general, allow seeds to mature from dead flowers and let them self-sow to the soil. If you don’t mulch too heavily and keep the beds moist, these flowers should return again and again. There are additional flowering perennials that you can try to germinate from seed: Rudbeckia, Verbena, Dianthus, Helianthus, Prairie Cone Flower, Penstemon and Oriental Poppy. Cross reference these with CSU Extension Fact Sheet #7.242 on Colorado Native Herbaceous Perennials for further insights on elevation, time, size & color.
To fulfill our continued quest for new and enduring color in our gardens during the coming growing season, we often need help by purchasing established plants (when it comes to immediate blossoms, many being perennial flowering plants). Consider the potential cost effectiveness of germinating these seeds. Life is full of challenges … so why not try germinating these seeds? Finally, we mustn’t forget, many pollinators are depending upon us.
Happy Spring garden planning!