Most everyone has heard of the old English garden flowers by the name of Canterbury Bells. These 3- to 4-foot plants always bloom in their second year of growth as they are known as a biennial. This is a plant that grows vegetatively during its first year and blooms during its second, at which point it drops seeds and repeats the process. Their numerous flowers are produced on sturdy stems and are in the shape of large bells. Their beautiful colors of blue, purple, pink and white will cool the summer garden.
Canterbury Bells are not hardy for our area as they are a zone 5 plant, but I have seen people grow them in a good year to produce amazing flowers. They are part of a much larger group of plants called Campanulas. There are many selections in this group that are quite showy and will grow in our area to gives us some of that same beauty.
Better known as bellflowers, their cool hues are a welcome sight in any garden. They prefer full sun to part shade in a well-drained soil that has rich organic matter. But with many plants, they can grow in many soil types with good results. Depending on the selection, they can grow from 4 inches to 3 feet in height. Many are clump-forming and will spread, but some are much slower to divide.
Most species leaves are large at the bottom, usually developing a rosette and then extending a flower stem from that point with smaller leaves as it graduates toward the top of the stem. Other selections are more mound-forming with all of the leaves about the same in size. As they reach their final heights, each stem will produce numerous flowers.
The bell-shaped flowers have five points to each flower. Some points are sharp, like a star, and others are rounder like the outer edge of lace. Some will be upright, some will bloom perpendicular to the stem, whereas others will hang from the stems in a very delicate nature. Most do not smell, but if your nose is trained, you will pick up on a very light scent during the mornings and evenings when flowers smell their best.
One of the most common bellflowers in many gardens is the cluster forming ‘Glomera’ variety. Common names would be the cultivars of ‘Freya’ and 'Superba’. These selections will get about 2 feet tall and form a nice solid clump. As the flower stems form, they bloom from the top down with flower clusters around the main stem at each leaf node. Usually these bloom in rich colors of purple and blue. Division is easy with a quick scoop from the base that grabs two to three young shoots. They adapt well to almost any garden soil and will bloom the following year for many years to come.
A delicate bellflower selection would be that of the Scottish bells or Bluebells of Scotland. These plants reach about a foot in height and send out many flower buds on individual stems that are very fine to the sight. Dainty little bells of lavender and purple hang from these stems and sway in the gentle breeze. If the dead flowers are consistently removed, these will bloom throughout the entire growing season.
‘Blue Clips’ and ‘White Clips’ bloom in their perspective colors. They reach about 1 foot tall also and form a mound. Their tops are covered in many star-shaped bells of white and blue that look up toward the sun.
The ‘Peach Leaf’ types of bellflowers have lance-shaped leaves resembling leaves on a peach tree, which form a rosette at the base and send up tall flower stalks from the centers about three feet tall. Flower shades of white and light blue are common in this variety.
The ‘Spotted Bellflower’ develops heart-shaped leaves and forms flowers in the shades of white to dusky pink. These plants only reach 1 foot in height and can be invasive in the garden, so beware. ‘Cherry Bells’ is the most common of this selection, but is also the invasive one. For one that is not invasive, try ‘Pink Chimes’.
If you are looking for a variety that is low growing with nice 1-inch star blooms, try the Serbian bellflower ‘Blue Waterfall’. This one is great for borders, rock gardens, or near a retaining wall to drape down the side. They develop a rich blue flower that blooms toward the sky.
Many people mistake the ‘Balloon flower’ to be part of this group of plants with its balloon-shaped flower buds that open to a beautiful blue bell. It was once part of this group but has since been moved to a different family of plants called Platycodon. Even though it is no longer part of this family of plants, it should not be avoided, as it will provide years and years of consistent blooms on sturdy little 15-inch plants.
Try a variety of bellflowers in your garden and see what you think of the results. They will definitely add some nostalgia to an English-themed garden, but will accent any style garden in a magnificent way. It is never too late to grab a division from a neighbor who is willing to share, as it is where I received one of my finest specimens in the garden!