Sunday, October 18, 2020

Plant Story--Harebells and Bluebells, Campanula rotundifolia

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 or bluebell, Campanula rotundifolia
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).

bluebell, Mertensia
bluebells, Mertensia

harebell, Campanula rotundifolia
harebells, Campanula

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 Brรถnte 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.

harebell, Campanula rotundifolia with bee
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 of fairies
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

Let harebells raise your spirits, wherever you see them.
harebell, Campanula rotundifolia
harebells, Campanula rotundifolia,

Comments and corrections welcome.


Cunningham, 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. 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. link Accessed 10/16/2020.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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Sunday, October 11, 2020

Musing about Recycling

Recycling is on my mind because a National Public Radio (NPR) study (link) last month found that plastic recycling is basically not happening; most of the plastic goes to landfills. And always has. What? I am a believer in recycling.

recycling bin and trash bin

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Plant Story--Lupines, Little Wolves

Lupines, also spelled lupins, are plants in the pea family native (Fabaceae). More than 200 species are recognized, found native all across the world but especially the Americas. (Lupines in Texas and surrounding states are often called bluebonnets.) These are distinctive plants, the leaves tending to be compound with five or more leaflets projecting out from the center so they are hand- or star-like. The flowers are a tall spike of closed, pea-like blossoms, in colors from white to yellow to pink, blue, and purple. 

lupine, Lupinus, flowers and leaves

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Future of the Alpine Tundra

arctic tundra, Sweden
arctic tundra in Sweden, 1980s

The tundra is the coldest ecosystem on earth, found in the Arctic and high on mountains. As the coldest, it is changing rapidly from global warming. World temperature is up by about 2o Fahrenheit over the last 100 years (link) but at the poles it is up twice that (link). The average temperatures on high mountains (Alps, Rocky Mountains) are up 3o Fahrenheit during that time. In arctic tundra, the permanently frozen ground is melting, forming lakes, in other places it is drying out and has caught fire, while glaciers and sea ice are melting, all of these imperiling cold-adapted animals and plants and the people who depend on them. At high elevations, conditions are rapidly changing as well. On mountains, animals and plants will migrate higher for cooler conditions, but when the summit gets too warm, they will die out.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Alpine Tundra Wildflowers in Rocky Mountain National Park

Life is hard for plants of the alpine tundra (previous post link). Alpine tundra is the ecosystem above treeline, in the United States from about 10,000' elevation up. The growing season is short, about three months. Frosts occur most nights all year and snow can fall any day. 

                     alpine tundra in July

The soil is unstable as the water in it freezes (expanding) and thaws (contracting). The soil shifts and the rocks steadily move around. Plant roots are displaced, making them sprawl. There is little cover, thin atmosphere, and less distance to the sun, so sunlight is very strong, despite cool temperatures, making sun damage to tissues much more common than better-protected places.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Alpine Tundra in Northern Colorado

Tundra is the ecosystem where it is too cold for trees. It can be too cold because the growing season is too short or because the soil is frozen (permafrost) much of the time and, in the brief periods when it is not frozen, shifts, knocking trees over, usually both. Tundra is found in the Arctic (in the Antarctic, ocean fills the area that would have tundra) and high on mountains. It is the coldest ecosystem on earth.

alpine zone, Rocky Mountain National Park
alpine tundra is above the highest trees

Ecologists try to reduce the world's ecosystems to a minimum number. Of land ecosystems, called biomes, they can be reduced to forest, grassland, desert, and tundra. For people in the lower 48 United States, tundra is hardest biome to see. There is no arctic tundra in the lower 48 and alpine tundra occurs only on the tops of mountains. There are areas of alpine tundra high in the mountains of New York and New England, a chain of spots of tundra along the Rocky Mountains above 10,500 feet, and a similar chain of tundra when you get high enough in the Sierras and Cascades. Rocky Mountain National Park has the most accessible alpine tundra, because Trail Ridge Road will let you drive right up to it. And it is pretty extensive, something like 149 square miles in all the park (though some of it is way too steep for people or on an isolated peak). I wanted to see all the biomes of the world. Tundra was the last of the four I reached.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Robert Fortune, Tea, and China

Robert Fortune (1820-1880) was a plant collector who did a lot of work in China. I encountered him reading about plants from China that are now common garden plants in Europe and North America (forsythias, peonies, wisteria and more), in Sarah Rose' book on tea, For All the Tea in China, How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History, in London at Chelsea Physic Garden where he was curator, and his home nearby. British sources talk of him as a talented and brave plant collector. Sarah Rose's book and some thought about how the Chinese might view it, complicates that picture. 

sign from Robert Fortune's house in London
This placque is on the house at 9 Gilston Road,  Chelsea, London

Robert Fortune house, London

The language we choose is so evocative. Robert Fortune stole tea from China. He broke the Chinese monopoly on tea. He spied in China, disguised as a Chinese. Despite great difficulties, he collected and successfully brought many important Chinese plants to England.