Neil Sperry

Neil Sperry: Growing Texas Gold columbine

A close-up view of Texas Gold columbine’s delicate yellow blooms
A close-up view of Texas Gold columbine’s delicate yellow blooms

Although it has been on the market for 23 years, Texas Gold columbine is no less popular now than it was when it first arrived in nurseries. If you’re looking for perennial plants that bloom in the shade, this one needs to be at the top of your list.

The backstory of this sweet little plant is amazing, and there’s a personal touch for me as well. Let me start at the present and work my way back.

In 1992, Texas Gold was introduced with much fanfare because it was the first truly dependably perennial columbine that Texans could grow. In labeling it a Texas SuperStar, Texas A&M assured us it would come back spring after spring from its roots, and that it would reseed freely as well. Even without flowers, its blue-green, fernlike foliage made a lovely addition to perennial borders. However, it does have flowers, and they keep coming for several weeks — dozens of big yellow blooms with impressively long spurs extending back like multiple tails of a comet.

It’s quite the showstopper when in bloom.

Texas Gold, we were told, was a selection that plant experts made after several years of studying seedlings from Hinckley’s golden columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha var. hinckleyana). And that’s where the story gets interesting.

Hinckley’s golden columbine is native to only one small location of far West Texas, in the mountains of Presidio County and at the base of a waterfall. Over the years, horticulturist Greg Grant has brought us many fine plants (firebush, Gold Star esperanza, Henry Duelberg salvia and others), and he was instrumental in introducing Texas Gold columbines as well.

His friend, extension service horticulturist Jerry Parsons of San Antonio, also helped with the testing and naming of Texas Gold. So credit goes back to the guys who gave us this gem.

Now for the personal part of this story, which goes way back to the 1930s and 40s. Long before I was adopted in 1944, my mom and dad had moved from Nebraska to Alpine. That’s at the south end of the Davis Mountains, and that’s where my father started the biology department at Sul Ross State University (then Sul Ross State Teachers College).

My dad’s research was finished by the time I was born, but he told me that every other weekend he and his graduate assistants would drive 118 miles south into what later became Big Bend National Park to study the plant life in the unusual surroundings of the mountains and high desert. Based on his years of research, the book Plants of the Big Bend National Park was published by the United States Government Printing Office in 1951.

In my dad’s personal desk copy of the book (now on my shelf of most-revered artifacts), he makes a reference to Aquilegia longissima, the longspur yellow columbine. It grows natively in Big Bend National Park, and 10 years ago, my wife and I hiked several miles up to a waterfall where my dad had reported it.

It was May, and hot, and we hiked up four miles of rocky incline. Finally we saw a grove of trees, rounded a corner and heard the waterfall splashing. It was little more than what you might get from a water hose, but it was enough to create a pool at its base — and provide a good environment around the pool’s perimeter for maidenhair ferns, cattails and columbines.

They were longspur columbines, which are a paler yellow than Texas Gold, and they offered glorious proof that, yes, columbines do grow in Texas.

This time of year, most garden centers have Texas Gold columbines available for sale — usually blooming in quart and gallon pots. If you buy one, plant it right away. It will continue blooming for several weeks, then will quickly set seeds. Let those seeds drop to the ground. They’ll sprout later this fall, and you should have a nice little stand come springtime next year.

Grow your Texas Gold columbines in shade, especially from mid-morning on. Plant them where you might otherwise be considering ferns, hellebores or other shade-loving plants. Give them well-prepared garden soil to which you’ve added 4 or 5 inches of organic matter, and space them 12 inches apart.

Because they’ll grow to be 18 to 24 inches tall and 15 inches wide, this spacing will allow a handsome mass of color in the bed. Also, positioning them so that they’re backed by dark green evergreen foliage will show off the flowers to best effect.

And now that I’ve told you all that I know about Texas Gold columbines, I’m hoping you have the information (and motivation) you need to start planting them soon.

Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens Magazine” and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.

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