Everybody Loves Bellflowers

bellflower (Campanula sp.)

bellflower (Campanula sp.)

Everyone loves bellflowers. They belong to the Campanulaceae family, an appropriate appellation since campanulate is the botanical term for bell-shaped flowers. It harkens back to those Italian campanile bell towers built during the Renaissance.
Several hundred species of bellflowers exist and only a few are locally encountered. Yet, a greater variety of these long-blooming, carefree plants is sure to be seen in the not-too-distant future as advances in propagation and hybridization techniques offer an increasing array of bellflower selections.
Bellflowers are meant for viewing close up since their blooms are not at all shrill and their beauty does not ring out like bells from on high. Bellflower beauty is always whispered, never shouted.
Serbian bellflower (Campanula Poscharskyana) is the most recognizable member of the bellflower group. It is a popular ground cover with flowers almost always seen in lavender, but occasionally seen in white as well. Soft is the most fitting adjective for describing Serbian bellflower. It just looks soft and welcoming.
It is well suited to containers and hanging baskets because of its trailing growth habit and prolific, if less than brilliant, flowers. It is a reasonably drought-tolerant selection that you can use as a filler around impatiens, begonias and ferns. Campanula grows rampantly at times but its roots are shallow, making it easy to control.
A common mistake is to use Serbian bellflower as the only ground cover in a huge side yard or as the exclusive background plant in a series of consecutive planters.
When planted over a large expanse, Serbian bellflower becomes invisible. It needs to be seen up close, in small to medium-sized flower beds next to an entry, along a walkway, adjacent to steps or in pots, to be appreciated. It demands sun protection as much as any other ground cover, eschews deep shade, and blooms well as long as it gets a few daily hours of ambient light.
An outstanding member of the bellflower constellation is throatwort. Its genus name is derived from trachelos, the Greek word for neck, due to its efficacy in curing sore throats. The flowers of throatwort are produced in delicate sprays borne in profusion for months on end.
This eminently garden-worthy and lightly fragrant plant has, for some inexplicable reason, been all but absent from the nursery trade. It certainly deserves wider recognition and use, owing to its lace cap clusters of lavender florets and long bloom period. It grows no more than a compact 3 feet in height and, cut back in winter, will reliably return in the spring.
The amount of light it desires is similar to that of lobelia, another bellflower, which means that full sun in winter and half-day sun in summer suits it just fine. It also will survive a freeze.
Blue lace is a favorite cut flower selection. Its colors include many shades of blue, as well as purple, pink, red and white.
The plant with the most imposing bellflowers is known as Canterbury bells (Campanula Medium). Its chalice-shaped blooms are 2 inches long and nearly as wide. Canterbury bells is a plant that, when you first lay eyes on it, you will wonder about its origins: Is it part of the plant kingdom or did it come from the artificial flower shop? It is the ideal plant for stimulating horticultural interest among children and other would-be gardeners.
Unfortunately, you will rarely, if ever, see Canterbury bells at the nursery. It is an annual that you will probably have to plant from a seed packet. Give it half-day sun to partial-shade exposure.
Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus) is another member of the bellflower clan. Balloon flower is a perennial whose silky mauve blue flower buds look like expanding balloons as they enlarge. Eventually, the buds open into pentagram-shaped blooms with five upwardly curving star points and flat bottoms. The balloon flower is cold hardy and combines well with lobelia, blue lace and Canterbury bells in a blue to violet flower bed.
Speaking of blue to violet flowers, sea lavender or perennial statice (Limonium perezii) is a reliable Mediterranean species for water-thrifty gardens. Statice is taken from the Greek statikos, static in English, and means “causing to stand (or stop).” This name was given on account of statice’s medicinal use as an astringent, applied to wounds to stanch the flow of blood. Its botanical name, Limonium, is derived from the Greek word for meadow and refers to its habitat. Limonium grows in meadows bordering the sea that are regularly inundated with salt water. You can find volunteer statice growing up and down the California coast.
Statice combines well with tough perennials such as white ‘Iceberg’ roses, yellow Euryops daisies and red or pink geraniums. Perennial statice is a full-sun selection that may be complemented with annual statice (Limonium sinuatum) that is available not only in purple and blue, but in yellow, orange, peach, pink, red and white as well.
Q. I’m perplexed by the lack of blossoms and leaves on what I believe is a Prunus ‘Krauter Vesuvius’ (purple leaf plum). I purchased it in a 36-inch box and it was planted in 2003 and each year until last year, blossomed in perhaps March and then became covered with dark purple leaves. I assumed that last year was a fluke because as I recall we had some strange weather early in the year.
However, this year was a repeat: very few blossoms and hardly any leaves. Whether this is another or related problem, or isn’t a problem, the bark on the trunk has some vertical splits.
Our neighbor has two of these trees in his front yard and these as well as those in a nearby park all look very healthy and are covered with leaves. However, a few blocks away, there is another tree that is about the same size as ours and looks just as bare as ours. Have you any suggestions for returning it to health or is it a goner?
-Sue Souveroff, Encino
A. I would compare the size of your failing trees with that of the healthier trees in your neighborhood. I would guess that the healthier trees are smaller and several years younger than yours. The 36-inch boxed specimen that you planted was probably five years old, if not more, so that your tree is now at least 13 years old. Considering that the average life span of a ‘Krauter Vesuvius’ plum in Los Angeles is around 15 years, your tree is probably dying.
I have seen ‘Krauter Vesuvius’ plums go into decline the first year they are planted. Roots are sensitive to standing water and trunks that are regularly soaked by sprinkler irrigation, or exposed to hot afternoon sun, may become cracked.
If I were to grow this tree, I would either hand water with a hose or apply water through a drip system, and give it no more than half-day sun since the trees are sensitive to heat stress.
Ornamental plums and pears, although they stay small and do not demand much pruning, are highly susceptible to diseases and insect pests and do not live long.
Tip of the week
Petunias are classic warm-weather annuals but they succumb to too much water and fertilization. Pansies, petunias and annual vinca are all susceptible to the same fungus diseases so avoid planting them in succession in the same flower bed. When planting petunias, provide them with a well-composted soil into which slow-release fertilizer has been mixed. If you are planting the classic hybrid petunias with the big flowers, space them 18 inches apart. This will allow them to grow to full size without impeding each other’s growth. Trailing petunias, with smaller flowers, can be separated by 2 feet or more and still cover the ground in a flower bed within three weeks. Even with good spacing, petunias may grow into each other. When this happens, trim them back by one-third and they will reflower soon enough.

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