Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bellflowers Ring In the Summer

You'd never guess it was summer here in Pugetopolis. Especially not by glancing at the sky as you pull on your Polarfleece jacket after having read the newspaper weather report declaring a week's variations on the theme of "cloudy, high of 50 degrees."

But even autumn-in-July can't stop the bellflowers from blooming.

I don't know what species of bellflower makes up my garden's crop of volunteers. These flowers just started popping up in a small patch under the birch tree out front a few years ago, then quickly spread to the side gardens. Initially they were all a purple-blue color, but then lavender and white ones joined them.

I figured at first they were stray Canterbury bells that dropped in from another garden, but now I'm fairly convinced they're peach-leaved bellflowers, Campanula persicifolia, an Asian species that has naturalized in both England and the United States. They're tall, spindly, and self-sow extravagantly, matching the description of that species. ("Peach-leaved," incidentally, refers to their resemblance to peach-tree leaves, not the leaves' color.)

They all belong to the genus Campanula, which means "little bell" in Latin. Most of the names for this plant are inspired by its bell-shaped flowers: they're known variously as bellflowers, heathbells, harebells, and, weirdly, dead men's bells. Some species suggested thimble-related names: lady's thimble, witch's thimble, fairy's thimble.

The bees don't care what you call them--they love 'em.

These 3-foot-tall specimens are giraffes compared to many of the ground-hugging, alpine species. Many kinds grow on talus slopes or in other inaccessible places. According to a gardening book published in 1900, Nature's Garden by Neltje Blanchan (a lucky thrift-shop find), these little plants' beauty is so tempting that a person "gladly risks a watery grave or broken bones to bring down a bunch from its aerial cranny." (Hmm. Maybe that's where the name "dead men's bells" comes from?)

If bellflowers came not only in blue and white but also in shades of red, the garden would look like a giant, swaying American flag just in time for the Fourth of July weekend. (Very Martha Stewart, that would be.) They bloom throughout July, so they'll still be ringing long after the fireworks have been silenced. 

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