The little blue flowers are always a delight to see. Its a harebell, Campanula rotundifolia (harebell family, Campanulaceae), seen in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
|harebell, Campanula rotundifolia|
Harebells are relatively common on the eastern slope of the Rockies, so I have often done "there it is!" while my brain races to remember the name. The scientific name Campanula is Latin for "little bell", from campana a bell. The distinctive bell tower on the University of California Berkeley campus is called the Campanile (see Wikipedia link) and there are other words with this root in English, such as campanology, the study of bells, and the botanical campanulate, bell-shaped, so looking at the bell-like flowers I think of the scientific name easily enough. (The species epithet rotundifolia, means round-leaf) But the common name in Colorado, given in the Flora of Colorado and most wildflower identification books, is harebell, as in "rabbit bell." If I think bluebell, in Colorado bluebells are plants in the genus Mertensia, which has bell-shaped blue flowers too (borage family. Boraginaceae).
That's been my problem, I always know it is a bell, but am not sure which one. Harebell.
I discovered, though, that people do call Campanula rotundifolia bluebells. The plant is native all across northern North America and Europe. Europeans often say bluebells; in fact, my harebell is the famous bluebell of Scotland. This is the plant Anne Brönte wrote about link and the folk bands sing about (Bluebells of Scotland: youtube). But Americans call Mertensia species bluebells, not Campanula species. Mertensia virginica is the bluebell of Virginia. The USDA lists the bluebell of Scotland, Campanula rotundifolia, as occurring in Virginia, but my guess is Mertensia is or was more common, so in North America it got the bluebell name, and as a consequence, Campanula went by an alternate name (harebell is sometimes used for it in Britain). Whatever the original story, in North America, generally a bluebell is Mertensia and in the British Isles it is Campanula.
Bluebell is the kind of common name easily given to various plants. Sources on British folklore (see links in references) frequently comment that bluebell is also the name for wild hyacinth (Hyacinthus non-scriptus, also called scilla, as Scilla nutans, Asparagus family, Asparagaceae) and the folklore can apply to both plants.
Other common names for harebell/bluebell of Scotland include bluebell bellflower in the U.S. and witches' thimble and old man's bell in Great Britain.
|bumble bee visiting harebells|
Harebells grow in a wide variety of forest and meadow environments across the Northern Hemisphere. They start blooming in June but continue into the fall as long as there is good weather. The buds point upward, but the flowers nod when open, hanging like a hand bell. Opening downward protects the working flower parts (stigma and stamens) and the nectar from rain. They are pollinated by a diversity of flower-visiting insects but especially bees.
The leaves are edible cooked or raw, though I rarely find enough in one place to consider gathering it. Harebell is a close relative of Campanula rapunculus, rampion, which has been a garden vegetable in Europe for centuries (the leaves are treated like spinach, the roots are eaten like radishes.)
Native Americans also used the roots medicinally to treat ear, lung, and heart ailments (Chippewa, Thompson, Woodlands Cree respectively). The Ramah Navajo included it in mixes of ceremonial cleansing smoke for head trouble or deer infection, and rubbed it on for protection while hunting or against witches.
Across the Atlantic, there is lots of folklore. The name harebell associated the flower with witches, the hare being a favorite of witches (and more see link). Calling it old man's bell, or aul' man's bell, was saying "the devils' bell." Possibly the devil would be called if you picked it. And especially, fairies. Fairies frequented places with many harebells, so, in such a spot, you might be able to glimpse a fairy, but you need to be wary to protect yourself from fairy spells. In all cases, hearing the harebells ring warned of magic and not necessarily friendly magic.
|a place to look for fairies|
Of course they were used in charms. Anyone who wore a bluebell was compelled to tell the truth, though in one version, only about his/her loves. Turn a harebell flower inside out without damaging it, and you are assured you will eventually have the person you love. Or, when you see a harebell, say "Bluebell, bluebell, bring me some luck before tomorrow night!" put the flower inside your shoe, and watch for the luck it sent.
As a memorable wildflower, harebells frequently appear in poetry and literature. A quick Google search will bring up dozens of poems and essays. Yet my favorite is a Wordsworth story of a poetic line that doesn't actually mention harebells. William Wordsworth (1770-1850, biography), in his 70s, visited familiar places but found himself mourning for lost friends. Walking sorrowfully, he spotted harebells growing on a wall. The sight lifted his spirits, and he was moved to quote, from one of his recent poems,"Would that the little flowers that grow could live,
Conscious of half the pleasure that they give."
Poems and Sentimental Reflections #4
ReferencesCunningham, S. 1993. Scott Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN.
Durant, M. 1976. Who Named the Daisy? Who Named the Rose? Congdon and Weed, New York.
Edmiston, A. 2019. Flower folklore: spring blooms and bells of blue. folklorethursday.com link Accessed 10/16/2020.
Finch, S. 1982. Wordsworth's Flowers. Limesdale Publishing Group, Carnforth, Lancashire, U.K.
Hypnogoria blog. 2016. Folklore on Friday, The chime of the harebells. link Accessed 10/16/2020/
Moorman, D, E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, OR. (database online link)
Rhian. 2012. Fairy flower. Scottish Wildlife Trust link Accessed 10/16/2020.
Rich, V.A. 1998. Cursing the Basil and othe Folklore of the Garden. Horsdal and Schubart, Victoria, BC, Canada.
Windling, Terri. 2019. Myth and Moor blog. Wildflower season. terriwindling.com link Accessed 10/16/2020.