The Beauty of a Biennial

by Andrea Laine, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer

When I was first introduced to biennials, I admit, I was disappointed. Why bother with an ornamental plant that does not return to bloom faithfully year after year like a perennial and whose flower display is far less showy than the array of annuals available in the marketplace?

And then I got to know Aquilegia canadensis, the native Eastern columbine.


Biennials, by definition, complete their life cycle over two growing seasons. The first year, they produce only foliage. The second year they bloom, set seed, and then die. But the story does not end there.

Columbines, like other biennials, self-sow their seeds. The new seeds settle in to the soil near the original plant and a new lifecycle begins. In a relatively short time, you may have  a dozen or more plants  as I did this summer. There were so many seedlings that at first I thought I had a crop of weeds. Although columbines grow in sun, they prefer dappled shade and the organically rich, moist soil of their native forest home.

Another columbine that does well in our area, but is not a native, is aquilegia vulgaris (European columbine).

Aquilegia vulgaris (European columbine). photo credit: Missouri Botanical Garden.

Because the seeds do not fall far from the mother plant, it can seem as if the columbine is a perennial, and that may help put gardeners with control issues at ease. The new plants will appear in the same general location as where you placed the original. Overtime, however, they will establish, temporarily, a little farther away and that can be delightful, too.

Being a gardener with more control issues than design sensibility, I can easily overthink where to place a plant. I much prefer when Mother Nature makes the choice for me, as she does with spreading the dainty columbine plant throughout my woodland garden. Sometimes I dig up and relocate a few plants to spread the joy to another part of the garden; And, sometimes I pot them up as gifts for friends and neighbors. I have had success doing this in both early summer and fall.

And as if all that isn’t reason enough to add a columbine to your garden, the nectar of Aquilegia canadensis attracts ruby-throated hummingbirds and is deer-resistant.


Hand-sowing seeds:  Seeds of biennials can be hand sown in midsummer so that the plants will develop during summer and fall. After exposure to the winter cold, they will develop flowers in the spring. Other common biennials are: Alcea rosea (hollyhocks), digitalis purpurea (foxglove) and dianthus (sweet William).


Evans, E. (1998). The North Carolina master gardener training manual, 5th edition. North Carolina Cooperative Extension Foundation.

Cox, J. and M. (1985). The perennial garden: Color harmonies through the seasons. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

Spira, T.P. (2011). Wildflowers & plant communities of the southern Appalachian mountains & Piedmont. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.