There are many plants which we call Bellflower - our own PlantFinder has over 90 plant records, spread over 6 genera, but the plant which most people mean when they say Bellflower is the lovely Campanula.
The name Campanula comes from the Latin “campana” meaning bell, a name which is also familiar to us in the term “campanology” which is the art and study of bell-ringing.
Campanula means literally “little bell” and indeed, many of these lovely plants have flowers whose petals overlap to form a deep bell shape: although one of the most familiar species, Campanula medium, is known not only as Canterbury Bells, but also as Cup and Saucer plant, despite the clear lack of a saucer!
They range from the tiniest of alpines - Campanula cochleariifolia or Fairy Thimbles is just 2” (5cm) high - through the more familiar C. persicifolia at a sturdy 2' high (60cm) right up to that mainstay of many a herbaceous border, the perennial C. lactiflora which can grow to a whopping 6' tall (1.8m) although it normally only attains 4'-5' (around 1.4m)
Perhaps the classic Bellflower is Campanula rotundifolia, which grows wild in many parts of the UK and is also known as the Harebell, although in Scotland it is, confusingly, called Bluebell. It has the deep, almost closed, bell-shape flower, typical of the genus, and is deceptively fragile-looking. Why Hare-bell? Apparently there was a superstition in those parts that witches used to turn themselves into hares, and then hide among the flowers, which seems most unlikely as they are a delicate and airy wildflower, and surely any sensible Scottish witch would lurk among the Willowherbs, which are usually dense enough to hide a whole coven.
Why are they called Bellflowers?
The simplest explanation is usually the correct one, and in this case it is simple to see that the classic Bellflower is indeed shaped just like a traditional bell.
They have long been considered to be a lucky flower: this dates back to a story from the 7th century, when the Bishop of Aurelia (in Rome) rang the church bells to warn the people of an attack. It was said that when the attackers heard the bells, they fled in fear: this was a time long before engines, electricity, and industry, so a loud metallic sound, with no apparent source, could indeed be very frightening. Thus the bells became lucky, and the Bellflower became lucky by association.
What are Bellflowers used for?
There is a Bellflower for every situation in the garden: many of them are perennials, some are annuals, and some are biennials: some of the perennials are rather short-lived, so they are often grown as annuals or biennials, in much the same way that we grow Wallflowers (Erysimum). Some will add height to a herbaceous border, others, such as Campanula carpatica, make excellent ground cover, while the rather Russian-sounding Campanula poscharskyana or trailing bellflower will drape itself in a softening manner over walls and edges.
As well as being beautiful to look at, Bellflowers have added to the pantry in days of old: Campanula rapunculus or Rampion roots used to be eaten, raw or cooked, often mixed with other root vegetables and also used in winter salads. The leaves were said to be rich in vitamin C, and young shoots in spring can apparently be blanched and cooked like asparagus.
Campanula cochleariifolia (Fairies Thimbles) has edible leaves and flowers, said to have a pleasant, mild, slightly sweet taste, as does Campanula glomerata (Clustered bellflower) (not Custard, Clustered) whose flowers are said to make a good addition to a salad, being pretty to look at as well as pleasant to eat.
Campanula latifolia (Giant bellflower), on the other hand, has flowers which are described as emetic, so although they may taste nice at first... maybe it would be best not to experiment with eating these flowers, but to just enjoy them in the wild, and in the garden.
The Bellflower in popular culture
In Victorian times, there was a well-known Language of Flowers, rather like a secret code, which young men and women would use to signal their intentions to each other - a sort of very early emoticon. In their lexicon, the Bellflower stood for Humility, Constancy, Gratitude, and for Unchanging or Everlasting love.
On the other hand, it is also associated with death, and is often planted on graves. Possibly this is to do with the connotations of Constancy and Undying Love, or maybe it is simply that many wildflowers are associated with graves, due to the idea that they grow from the remains of the dead, which could be considered as an organic fertiliser.
One such is Campanula glomerata or Clustered bellflower: one of its common names is 'Dane's blood', and it is said that the red stem is stained with the blood of Norsemen buried below the ground.
In a less gruesome vein, the fairy tale of Rapunzel, the girl who let down her long golden hair, originates from an Italian story which went, via France, to Germany and the Brothers Grimm. In the German version, the plant which the pregnant mother craves is Rapunzel: Campanula rapunculus or Rampion in English. As this plant is rich in Vitamin C, there is a certain logic to her craving. The wicked witch who owned the Rapunzel plant names the baby (which she demands in payment for the stolen plant, which seems a rather unfair transaction but it is, after all, a fairy story) after the plant.
And there is an even older story, which tells that Venus, Goddess of Love and Beauty, dropped her magic mirror which was subsequently broken during a botched recovery job by Cupid, thus proving that you should never send a child to do an adult's job. Wherever a shard of the mirror fell, a Bellflower grew.
How do you know it's a Bellflower
All Campanula have five coloured petals, usually in shades of blue, although there are some spectacular whites, such as Campanula latifolia var. Alba, and Campanula persicifolia ‘Planiflora Alba’. The flowers are held in a panicle, which is a many-branched upright stem, each flower having its own pedicel or stalk.
These petals usually overlap to form the bell shape, with the tips of the petals curling back, giving a starry appearance to the individual flowers. However, as always with botany, there are some exceptions to the rule, and Campanula isophylla, for example, would not make a very good bell (or cup) while Campanula poscharskyana is positively ragged!
Bellflowers are interesting botanically, because the plant often has leaves of two different shapes - at the base, they are often large and broad, whereas at the top of the stem, they can be much smaller and narrow. This can make growing the biennials tricky, as the first-year plants often don't look very much like the expected mature plants, and they can be accidentally removed while weeding. In addition, most plants have leaf margins that are either toothed, or entire (untoothed), but the complicated Campanula can have some leaves with toothed margins, and some with entire margins, even on the same plant!
So what about other Bellflowers?
Platycodon is known as Japanese bellflower, but is more aptly described as Balloon flower, as the blue, slightly shiny petals stay joined together until the flower is almost fully formed, which makes it look as though the flower is an inflating balloon.
Codonopsis or Bonnet bellflower has four species, most of which have blue or cream coloured flowers with five point-tipped petals: some look very much like Campanula, but many of them are much more of an open saucer-shaped flower.
The Trailing bellflower, Cyananthus, contains two species, neither of which are actually trailing - they are six-petalled alpine plants, in lovely shades of darkish blue, which explains why the genus contains the work Cyan.
Wahlenbergia, with three species, is another genus which is called Bellflower and which is more of a low-growing alpine, but again, in shades of blue.
Adenophora rejoices in the common names of not just Bellflower, but Gland bellflower, and even the rather lovely Ladybells. Again, the funnel-shaped flowers are available in shades of blue, from the palest of pale, to a deep and rather desirable gentian blue. The flowers are held either singly, running up the stem, making it a very close Bellflower look-alike, or on cymes or bunches at the tips, where they dangle like delicate ornaments.
In addition to these, there are many flowers whose species name reflects their similarity to Campanula - “campanulatum” pops up in Linum, Allium, Notholirion, Polygonum and Rhododendron, whereas “campanulatus” includes Agapanthus, Enkianthus and Penstemon: Spathodea, the African flame tree, shares “campanulata” with Persicaria, Scilla and Prunus: Phacelia campanularia makes a tiny variation on a theme, and finally there is the straightforward steal of Canarina campanula.
Most of these have blue flowers, many of them are bell shaped, they may not be “proper” Bellflowers, but they are all lovely in their own way!