Aquilegia - From Darwin to Guinness
Written by David Ponton
Charles Darwin had a granddaughter whose name was Nora Darwin. Nora was an exceptional woman. At a relatively early age she risked the wrath of her parents by publishing the un-expurgated version of her grandfather’s life, ‘The Autobiography of Charles Darwin’. The original autobiography had been published by Nora’s Uncle Francis, who had decided, for his own reasons, to remove personal and religious material about the life of Charles Darwin.
However, Nora bravely stood against her uncle and told us everything. Ostracised by her family, she married Alan Barlow and they went on to have six children together. Her life continued until she was 109 years old! Nora took great pleasure in her garden and when I was at a garden exhibition in Holland, I was chatting to this chap who was an expert on the plant known as the aquilegia. He told me that when Nora was 108 years old she went into her garden and discovered a new variety of aquilegia. I cannot verify this, but I really hope it is a true story, because there is something romantic about having a great life and the year before you die you discover a new plant. As you’d expect this variety was named the Aquilegia Nora Barlow and it is to the aquilegia I turn my attention to this month.
I do not know if you have ever grown aquilegias but they are a colourful and easy-to-grow addition to the garden. The name aquilegia literally means ‘the eagle’s claw’, though I prefer their common name of ‘Granny’s Bonnet’. It sounds so much softer and is more appropriate to the bonnet shape and colour of the flowers.
These are real cottage garden classics. You know in your garden there can be a gap between the last of the spring bulbs and the start of the summer flowers? Well the aquilegia are perfect to carry you through this gap because they flower nice and early, from late spring to early summer. They are a bit promiscuous and as self-seeding plants they interbreed freely but the seedlings rarely resemble the parents. So you have two options. The first option is to keep your selection pure and prevent seeding by deadheading after flowering. Option two is to just let them get on with it and see what crops up. It is a matter of personal choice because you may be a purist or you may want to experiment and have fun. There is no right or wrong in this case.
Our native aquilegia is known as aquilegia vulgaris and it likes a moist soil in full sun or dappled sunlight. As they are happy in the dappled sunlight they are fantastic for planting among shrubs and trees. They flower late April to June and you would expect them to grow between 75cm to 90cm (30 “ to 36”) high and spread 45cm (18”) across. They are unfussy about the soil type as long as they have enough water. They are perfect for the beginner; the only maintenance needed is to remove any tired looking leaves as they grow.
I am going to point you in the direction of five that I particularly like and know make a great addition to the garden. Let’s start with the one and only Aquilegia vulgaris Nora Barlow. Hopefully discovered by the great lady herself, this perennial cottage garden favourite is grown for its mix of pale green and pink pompom-like flowers.
Another beauty I would choose is Aquilegia vulgaris William Guinness. It has a dark bodied flower with a white top, so you do not need to be Mr Titchmarsh to work out the inspiration behind its name.
Keeping with the drink theme I also like Aquilegia vulgaris Ruby Port. Popular for its early summer burgundy flowers, Ruby Port makes is particularly dramatic if you plant alongside white flowers.
My final two are the younger brothers of Nora Barlow and they are Aquilegia vulgaris Barlow Black and Aquilegia vulgaris Barlow Blue. Barlow Black isn’t really black but a very, very dark purple with double flowers. Barlow Blue is my favourite aquilegia because it has double blue flowers, grey-green leaves and looks like a small dahlia.
So grow and enjoy these aquilegias and I hope you live to be 109. Then when you are 108 go into your garden and perhaps you will find growing there, a fitting tribute to your wonderful life!