Confounding Columbines

Plant 800 seeds. Get two plants??

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I am a seed starter. Give me a packet of good seed, and I can always get them to pop within a few days. Most packets say, “Plant 2-3 seeds in each cell” (or an inch apart in the garden row), since they expect that fewer than half will germinate. Every seed grows every time for me. So when I grew concerned over the decrease in wildflowers here in Oregon, I decided to try rearing native western columbines (Aquilegia formosa). I mean, really, they grow in the wild. How hard could it be?

Western columbine has bright red sepals and yellow petals in a pagoda shape. A Spring bloomer, it likes streams and sun-dappled forests with good residual moisture. Bees and hummingbirds love to slurp the nectar in its upturned sepals.

I mean, really, they grow in the wild. How hard could it be?

Yes, you can buy plants—for $12-15 apiece. But the only way to legally propagate them is to collect seeds and plant them. Each columbine produces hundreds of seeds each year, held in urn-shaped follicles formed after the flowers fade. Hundreds. But, I read, you might get one of them to germinate. One.

Hmmph. I ordered columbine seeds and received a packet of 800 seeds—probably the output of one medium-sized columbine plant. Following their directions, I scattered half of them in a raised bed in the Fall, hoping for new seedlings in the Spring.

The other half were babied and planted in cells of the fine seedling mix I always use. I squinted at the shiny black, almond-shaped seeds, and planted three or four in each compartment. A week passed, while I carefully watered and tended them. Another week passed. Three weeks. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

What about the raised bed? When Spring came, weeds sprouted, overwintered leeks and shallots grew exceedingly well, but not a single columbine seedling came up.

In May, while vacationing at the Oregon coast, I bought one native plant that was just coming into bloom. After it bloomed, I let the plant’s little follicles turn brown and crispy and dumped the dried seeds upside down into an envelope. I planted half of them immediately and saved the other half to try later.

Germination rate? Zero. No starts—even after a month.

A wise gardening friend suggested I try a special method for the other half of the seeds: chill them for six weeks, leave them at room-temp for six weeks, then chill them another six weeks, then plant. I planned carefully, so the seeds could be started in January.

In February, three seeds sprouted, from the hundreds I had planted. Three. It had taken more than a month of anxiously watching and waiting, misting the soil, turning the seed trays around daily, and covering them tenderly with plastic wrap to preserve the moisture content. Tiny leaves like folded sails poked up and slowly opened, with tiny, lobed leaves. The plants were three-eighths of an inch tall.

There was no visible growth for weeks. By March, they had increased about 25 percent in size.

In April, the spindly plants had grown to an inch across, each with two more new leaves. Meanwhile, everything else I had planted came up—virtually every seed. I started 35 varieties of perennials and annuals from seed that Spring.

By early May, the columbines had tiny clumps of leaves, an inch across. Four months after germinating, they were an inch-and-a-half tall, the size that a weed reaches in a week.

Worried about our brief upcoming vacation, I asked a loyal neighbor to babysit my plants. I made signs on popsicle sticks, with messages like “Please don’t overwater.” We had a lengthy discussion on how to care for the impossible columbines. She did great: two of the three made it.

By July, the two columbines were large enough to transplant. Since they were both pathetically small, I planted them together in a planter. My library had now grown to half a dozen books on wildflowers, plus a list of websites, so I knew the plants wouldn’t bloom the first year. Fine. I could be patient—it had only taken two years, 800 worthless seeds, a native plant, and four tries to get two tiny plants to grow.

Surely I would do better the next time. So that Fall, I again collected seeds from the original native plant.

The seed experts all say you have to clean the seeds. Clean-ing tiny seeds does not mean using a vacuum on them! It means carefully sifting out the bits of dust, plant material, or anything else from the seeds. All of these can cause the dreaded damping off—a fuzzy white fungus that covers the soil where you carefully laid the seeds and kills them. Or it waits until a month goes by, the plants grow to a half-inch of height, and then kills them.

I rooted through the kitchen for strainers. The little seeds were carefully sifted through the coarsest strainer, then a finer one, then through the tea strainer, till most of the dried bits were gone.

Another book said to scarify the seeds. This isn’t scaring them (although I was quite crabby around the seeds when no one else was home); it’s scarring the seeds, lightly scratching through the seed’s outer coat to make it easier for nutrients and water to penetrate. Seeds could either be lightly run across sandpaper (hard to do, with seeds the size of a gnat’s back leg), or I could line a coffee can with sandpaper and swirl the seed around inside. I used the coffee-can method. Then I started the chill-warm-chill process.

Then I started waiting, obsessing, hovering, praying, checking, and re-checking, like four times a day.

That January, 100 years—I mean, three years—after my first attempt, I started more columbine seeds. Back into the fine-grained seedling mix they were planted and this time, after dusting the surface with dry seedling mix, I put them right under the grow lights in my home office. After all, nature does that: they fall from the plant and in early Spring, the sun comes out.

This time, I got maybe one or two plants to sprout—and those, again, after a month.
I was getting a little irritated.

With half of my seed stock still in the fridge (I had learned not to trust columbine seeds by now), I continued combing through books, visiting websites, and asking people. One seed catalog hinted that their magic fish emulsion could help. Hmmm.

Weeks later, the $20 bottle of fish emulsion arrived. It advised: “For difficult perennial seeds, soak in a solution of 1 teaspoon per ½ cup of water.” I mixed it, added the seeds (which floated—does that count as soaking?) and wondered how long they should soak. Half an hour? An hour? A decade? I gave up after an hour.

I moistened the seedling mix. I pressed the itty-bitty seeds down on top of the soil (yet another tip from somebody else). Since you can’t see tiny black seeds against black dirt, you are theoretically pressing them down and not sticking them to your sweaty, irritated hands instead. Then I started waiting, obsessing, hovering, praying, checking, and re-checking, like four times a day. Every day—even if I was sick, or had to go to work, or wanted to hurl the plant tray into the compost heap and sneak off to the nursery for $15 plants and lie about getting the seeds to grow.

Four years after the first packet of seeds, three years after buying a native plant, two years after the chill/warm/chill treatment, and after this last attempt…finally, five minutes before I died (OK, it only seemed like it), the seeds came up. But erratically. Over two months, one tiny seedling, then another, sent up its tentative, little green sail, probably waiting to see if I hacked it to bits with an axe or tenderly welcomed it into the world. In two months, 15 plants came up. Fifteen plants that would, maybe next year, produce flowers. Or be salable.

Or 15 babies that I could hoard in my backyard, cackling “Gotcha!” with maniacal glee, and refuse to share with the outside world. Maybe I should dig a moat, get a mean dog, install electric fencing, or sell tickets to come see my miracle plants.

Meanwhile, the two plants I had started the previous year miraculously survived. Both budded. Both grew—and flowered!

Anna’s hummingbirds zipped over to the bright red flowers and had no idea what to do. The poor birds had never seen them. Supposedly their favorite flowers in the whole world, and they didn’t know what to do.

After sniffing and staring at them, one of them tried slurping the top side of a flower—nothing. Then he poked the sides—still nothing. Finally, he tried coming from underneath, stuffing his beak inside—and hit the tiny nectar bulb at the end of the sepal. Joy! Sheer joy! They all buzzed the flowers several times a day, watching for each new green flower to elongate, widen, turn red, separate its sepals, and curl its yellow petals into a tiny pagoda, full of promising taste and sugar.

Next time I see a plant that spews out hundreds of seeds each year, I will know. You get what you pay for. If lots of seeds are provided for free, then lots of them will not grow. It’s nature’s cosmic joke. Just try to grow them. Go ahead—try! Follow all of my directions, or go mad, or just go buy a native columbine, if you can find one.

But stay away from mine. Mine are off-limits!

This article was published originally in 2020, in GreenPrints Issue #124.


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