Bellflowers and Fairytale Gardens

Why are bellflowers so captivating? Perhaps their delicate beauty and ability to be found in the most unexpected places has led to their starring role in folklore. Let’s not forget their striking blue color, such an uncommon hue in the garden. Or the fact that many varieties are edible and pretty easy to grow. What’s not to like? Bellflowers are the common name for campanula (little bell in Latin). Their lovely bell-shaped flowers are most commonly blue, but can also be found in purple, pink, and white. Many of the common names of bellflower varieties point to their importance in folklore: Fairy Thimbles and Harebells. 

Bluebells in Ireland, Scotland, & England

The harebell is one bellflower (Campanula rotundifolia) with ties to fairy lore in Scotland, Ireland, and England. It’s known as the bluebell of Scotland. This wildflower is found in woods and meadows and has an airy appearance with blue flowers on delicate stems. They are symbolic of constant love in Scotland but grief in other parts of Britain (perhaps because they were planted near graves). They are also known as fairy thimbles. Legend has it that the bells would chime to bring fairies out to play. Beware the wrath of the fairies to anyone who disturbed these flowers! 

The Sound of the Bellflower

The bellflower’s music comes up in many poems. Cicely Mary Baker describes them in her 1923 book, The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies: “They tinkle while the fairies play/With song and dance the whole night long/Till daybreak wakens, cold and gray, And elfin music fades away.” The delicate swaying of the bellflowers in the wind is also a common theme, among famous and unknown poets alike. Here’s a stanza from an 1835 poem, “The Blue Hare-Bell”: “The source of that whispering strain I’ll tell;/For I’ve listened oft/To the music faint of the Blue Hare-bell,/In the gloaming soft;/’Tis the gay fairy folk of the peal who ring,/At even-time for their banqueting.” It was written by Louisa Anne Twamley, “A young lady, who, at the age of twenty, is a Poet, a Painter, and her own Engraver.” (p. 189, Flora and Tahlia). 

Bellflower Superstitions

The name of harebell comes from old superstitions about witches turning into hares and hiding among the meadow flowers. They are also known as witch’s thimbles, witch bells, the cuckoo’s shoe, old man’s bell (the old man was the devil!), and dead men’s bells. It is quite strange that such a pretty flower had such sinister names. Some folklore has the witches using the juice of the flower in a spell that turned them into hares. It was very bad luck indeed to have a hare cross your path. In an alternative belief, the flower’s juice made witches fly. Even with these sinister connotations, tradition has it that dreaming of harebells meant true love. At least one variation simply links the name to the hares ringing the flowers to let other hares know of their whereabouts. 

Bellflowers in Folktales

Another variety of bellflower is at the heart of the Rapunzel story. Rampion (Campanula rapunculus) is a biennial found in Eurasia and North Africa with edible roots and leaves. According to Mrs. M. Grieve, writing in A Modern Herbal (1931), rampion was a popular garden vegetable in Germany, Italy, and France, and sometimes in England. Both the roots and leaves were eaten. It is a very old garden staple, dating at least from the time of Shakespeare. Shakespeare uses the plant in some of Falstaff’s slang. The rampion is the garden plant that Rapunzel’s parents keep stealing from the witch. The Brother’s Grimm took the name of Rapunzel from the Latin name for rampion, rapunculus, which means little turnip. Italian folklore claims that rampion can make children peevish. An Italian folktale from Calabria also features a rampion. After pulling it out, a girl discovers a staircase in its hole that leads to an underground adventure with the fairies. 

Have you thought of adding bellflowers to the story you are telling with your garden? They do not like very wet conditions, but they thrive in well-drained soil of any pH in both temperate and subtropical areas. Some popular varieties are the Peach Leaved Bellflower (Campanula persicifolia) and Canterbury Bells (Campanula medium).

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