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Aquilegia canadensis ‘Corbett’

A yellow columbine with home-town roots

I have always been an outspoken fan of our native columbine (Aquilegia canadensis, Zones 3–8), not because it’s native but simply because it works well in the garden. So when I saw a catalog offering a dwarf yellow-flowered form of the plant called ‘Corbett’, I had to have it. The name also intrigued me since my colleague Linda Copeland and I were in the middle of researching names of plants that bore the names of American places and people. I wondered what the story was behind the name ‘Corbett’.

As it turns out, Corbett is a small town in Maryland that was once a stop on the North Central Railroad line. The railroad and other industries have been gone for some time now, but Corbett remains a quiet and pleasant place to live. In fact, resident Shirley Clemens will tell you that it was a fine place for her and her husband to raise their four sons.

One day, in the late 1960s, the two youngest boys, Andrew and Larry Clemens, spotted a hauntingly beautiful yellow columbine near the abandoned railroad tracks. They transplanted their find to their mother’s garden, but it unfortunately did not survive a particularly difficult winter. That would have been the end of the story if not for Andrew, who several years later stumbled upon another plant from which he collected seeds to share with his mother and one of his neighbors. And this was not just any neighbor but a horticulturist by the name of Richard Simon, the second-generation owner of Bluemount Nurseries in Monkton, Maryland. Richard quickly realized this columbine came true from seed. He asked the boys to name the plant. They insisted it not be their own, so they chose the name of their hometown.

Today, new plants seem to fall like rain from heaven, found one year and pushed into commerce the next. This was not the case with ‘Corbett’, which was not introduced by Bluemount until 1992, about 25 years after the boys’ original discovery. This columbine, with its beautiful nodding sulfur yellow flowers in spring, forms dense mounds and never exceeds 9 inches in height. It’s not as vigorous as the species nor will it reseed with the same reckless abandon.

In the Armitage garden, ‘Corbett’ may disappear after three or four years, but that is not unusual for columbines. And now, thanks to the Clemens brothers and Richard Simon, I can always buy more. Plant ‘Corbett’ in the same conditions you would give any columbine: partial shade and reasonably moist soil. Good drainage enhances winter survival; plants appear to be hardy in Zones 4 to 8. Every time I see them in my garden, I think of a small town in Maryland and the curiosity of two young boys who shared their treasure with a neighbor.

By the way, Andrew became a school teacher in Baltimore and Larry is a librarian at the United States Naval Academy, not surprising professions for these two observant young men.

Photo: Alan Armitage
From Fine Gardening 102 , pp. 22