The microevolutionary process of adaptive phenotypic differentiation of quantitative traits between populations or closely-related taxa depends on the response of populations to the action of natural selection. However, this response can be constrained by the structure of the matrix of additive genetic variance and covariance between traits in each population (G matrix). In the present study, we obtained additive genetic variance and narrow sense heritability for 25 floral and vegetative traits of three subspecies of Aquilegia vulgaris, and one subspecies of Aquilegia pyrenaica through a common garden crossing experiment. For two vegetative and one floral trait, we also obtained the G matrix and genetic correlations between traits in each subspecies. The amount of genetic variation available in wild populations is not responsible for the larger differentiation of vegetative than floral traits found in this group of columbines. However, the low heritability of some traits constrained their evolution because phenotypic variability among taxa was larger for traits with larger heritability. We confirmed that the process of diversification of the studied taxa involved shifts in the G matrix, mainly determined by changes in the genetic covariance between floral and vegetative traits, probably caused by linkage disequilibrium in narrow endemic taxa. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2014, 111, 252–261.