Coping with columbine leaf miners

Judith Adam

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Japanese fan-leaved columbine and poppies. Photo by Brendan Zwelling

I like columbines of all kinds, especially the long-spurred beauties that remind me of swallowtail butterflies. I’ve had many in the garden, but some years they make an inviting treat for the infamous leaf miners that plague these plants. They can almost be heard galloping in for a good meal. Sometimes, my columbines were ravished before they could bloom, and the only thing to do was remove the plants.

Japanese fan-leaved columbine and poppies. Photo by Brendan Zwelling
Japanese fan-leaved columbine and poppies. (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)

That sorry state of affairs resulted in a few years without columbines until I came across two that seem resistant to the miners. First to bloom is the lovely Japanese fan-leaved columbine (Aquilegia flabellata, Zone 4), a dwarf plant growing about eight inches (20 cm) tall and wide, with milky white or pale blue nodding flowers. The attractive blue-green foliage is extra thick, and the plant blooms early in May for about six weeks. It makes only one or two seedlings each year, and the colours are true to the parent. I appreciate having some to move around, but always wish for more.

Then, I read Patrick Lima’s recommendation (in his classic book, The Harrowsmith Perennial Garden: Flowers for Three Seasons) for Biedermeier Group hydrids (A. Biedermeier Group, Zone 4), another compact columbine resistant to leaf miners, growing to 12 inches (30 cm) and blooming in late spring. (The many flower stalks extend the height to 18 inches / 45 cm.) This plant starts blooming as the Japanese fan-leaved columbine is finishing, and makes bright pastel clumps loaded with flowers through the middle of summer. The flowers face up and have been called nosegay columbines, because they’re suitable for small vases and little bouquets. Sometimes my clump of Biedermeier makes a seedling or two, and their colour is a bit muddy. I’d really like more of these, too. They seem to be erratically available, probably because of the popularity of the taller and larger hybrids in the Music and Barlow Series.

Columbines are short-lived perennials, and it’s always good to have a few younger plants around for insurance. Both the fan-leaved and Biedermeier types can be grown from seed, and after several years they’re still resistant to columbine leaf miners.

Now, about those leaf miners. There is more than one kind, and at least three species in the genus Phytomyza are associated with columbines. I’m outnumbered! What’s more, they can all be feeding on the same foliage together, and each species has two or three generations in a growing season. They overwinter as pupa in the soil and then morph into flies that lay eggs on the underside of leaves. The eggs hatch into maggots and once inside the leaf tissue, there’s no way of getting at them. Some make blotch-like mines in the foliage, others make serpentine paths. This is very bad news. These columbine miners are another devilish insect (along with the horrid red lily beetle) added to the list of “plagues I have endured.” However, I’ve got the jump on them now with Japanese fan-leaved and Biedermeier columbines. You’ve got to stay one step ahead of the pestilence.

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Posts by Judith this week:

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3 thoughts on “Coping with columbine leaf miners”

  1. Hello Garth,

    That is quite interesting, and I will certainly try using the 10% ammonia solution as an insecticide. If this is effective, it would be possible to bring back the lovely Fritillaria meleagris I have missed. They were a delicious spring meal for those horrible lily beetles! Did you know that ammonia is used as a fertilizer? You can find information here:

    — Judith

  2. I have had pretty good success controlling slugs and red Lily Beetles with a 10% solution of household ammonia. Since the Leaf Miners like to overwinter in the soil around the plant same as the other critters, I’m going to treat them with the ammonia, too.

    Don’t get mad… get even!

    Experiments never fail. They only have results.

  3. I would love to get some of these columbines but I haven’t seen any here in Kingston or with any of the mail-order companies I deal with. Any suggestions as to where I can find them?


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