Once-in-a-generation American columbo bloom coming this spring

American columbo flowering stalk starting to come up in the Garden; inset photo of a closeup of an American columbo flower

The American columbo in our Mountain Habitat starting to put up its first – and last – flowering stalk, April 16, 2024.
Inset: Closeup of an American columbo flower (what we have to look forward to!); photo by Richard and Teresa Ware.

Update: As of May 16, the columbo is nearing the end of its bloom. But it’s still standing tall! Here’s where to find it.

We’re about to witness an event that hasn’t happened at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in decades, if ever: an American columbo flowering.

After spending 19 years in our Mountain Habitat as an unassuming rosette of leaves near the ground, one of our American columbos is about to put out a spectacular flowering stalk for the first and only time. Then, after reproducing, it will die.

A native member of the gentian family, American columbo (Frasera caroliniensis) can spend 30 years or more storing up energy for one show-stopping flowering event. When it finally has enough energy, it puts up a huge flowering stalk that can pass six feet in height and contain as many as 100 flowers. Individual American columbo plants die after putting on this exhausting display, but not before their flowers have the opportunity to be pollinated and develop into seeds that will form the next generation.

“I’ve been waiting for this since 2005,” says Chris Liloia, NCBG habitat gardens curator. She planted several American columbos in our Mountain Habitat that year, grown from seeds collected in 1993 from the home garden of the first director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, Ritchie Bell. We don’t know the exact year they germinated, but they’re at least 19 years old.

Chris says she was sure they were all going to bloom in the spring of 2020, when our display gardens were shut down because of the pandemic. “It was a huge relief” when that didn’t happen: it meant the public wouldn’t miss this once-in-a-generation event.

Left: Large basal rosette of American Columbo. Right: Closeup of American columbo flowers.
American columbo can spend 30 years or more in its vegetative form – a basal rosette (left, photo by Scott G. Ward). It then flowers once, in spectacular fashion, with up to 100 flowers on a tall stalk (right, photo by Richard & Teresa Ware).

American columbo grows in rich forests in eastern and central North America, especially those on top of rocks rich in iron, magnesium, or calcium; here in North Carolina, it grows only in the mountains.

We’re expecting just one of our six American columbos to bloom this year. We don’t know for sure when it will start, but we’ll track its status here so you know when to come see it.

Map showing the location of our American columbo. It's in our Mountain Habitat, near the turn-off to the Paul Green Cabin.Friday, April 19: Stalk still growing. Not blooming yet.
Tuesday, April 23: Stalk noticeably taller, but still not blooming.
Thursday, May 2Flowers are starting to form! They’re mostly closed, but it looks like at least one is open.
Tuesday, May 7: Entering full bloom!
Thursday, May 16: Just about done blooming. Flowers are mostly closed, with some possibly setting seed. The flower stalk is still standing tall.