Campanula persicifolia in a private garden in Campbellville, Ontario
"A man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it."
Every family has its share of colorful characters. The family Campanulaceae is a large, extended family of plants that includes annuals, biennials and perennials. Two outstanding members of this clan that, as a gardener, you may want to get to know better are Bellflowers (Campanula persicifolia) and Balloon flowers (Platycodon grandiflorus).
Together these two perennials can give you an extended period of bloom that will see you through most of the gardening season. Campanula persicifolia begins to flower quite early in the summer. Then, just as these Bellflowers finish their first flush of blooms, many varieties of Platycodon grandiflorus will begin to flower and will continue to do so well into the late summer or early fall.
In my garden, Campanula persicifolia begins to flower in the early to middle part of June. It's a time when many other summer perennials are still in a growth phase and have yet to bloom. It's nice to have the delicate white and mauve bells as a companion to the first of my roses, peonies and early flowering clematis.
To flower well, Campanula persicifolia requires full sun, good drainage and moderate soil moisture.
Campanula persicifolia are an easy-to-grow plant that forms a low mound of green leaves. This perennial has bell-shaped flowers that are carried on tall stems. Normal, sandy or clay soil and average to moist conditions are fine for this plant. Full sun or light shade. Height: 60-90 cm, Spread: 30-50 cm. Zones: USDA 2-9.
Campanula persicifolia grouped in a private garden in Campbellville, Ontario
Campanula persiifolia are a bit of a tricky plant to place in a flower border. When they're not in flower, they're just a low mound of evergreen leaves. They don't become tall until the stems that carry the flowers appear. After the spent flowers are deadheaded, the plant is back to being a low rosette of green leaves. As it's short for a much longer time than it is tall, I've always placed Campanula persiifolia near the front of my flowerbeds.
One thing I haven't done, which would be nice to do if you have a larger garden, is to group Campanula persiifolia in a mass planting like the one you see above. Large groupings are always more impressive than just one or two isolated plants.
Just a quick mention– As well as tall Campanula persicifolia, you can also find more dwarf varieties with very similar flowers (like the one you see here on the upper left).
Campanula carpatica 'Blue Chips' has large, mauve-blue flowers. This perennial forms a low mound which makes it a perfect choice for edging or rock gardens. When deadheaded regularly, it will bloom repeatedly from early summer into fall. Campanula carpatica likes good drainage, but is adaptable to a variety of soils and moisture conditions. Divide every few years in spring or fall. Full sun or part shade. Height: 15-30 cm (6-12 inches), Spread: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches). Zones: USDA 2-9.
Campanula carpatica 'White Chips' has cup-shaped, white flowers on a low, mounded cushion of green leaves. Full sun or part shade. Height: 15-30 cm (6-12 inches), Spread: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches). Zones: USDA 2-9.
Balloon flower, Platycodon grandiflorus is a nice addition to any mid-summer garden. This is a tall, upright perennial has a carrot-like root and is very long-lived. Colors range from blue to pale-pink and white. Depending on the cultivar you choose, Balloon flowers will grow as tall as 60-75 cm (23-29 inches) and spread as much as 30-40 cm (12-16 inches). Not deer-resistant. USDA Zones: 3-9.
I love the opening to this excellent article by Barbara Pleasant for the National Gardening Association (in the USA):
"If plants were like movies, Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus) would be one of those critical successes that nobody goes to see until word of mouth gives it a boost. Balloon flower, also known as Chinese Bellflower, has been racking up great reviews for more than 50 years, yet it's still not found in many gardens."
So true! Platycodon grandiflorus is a terrific, easy-to-grow perennial that should be planted in gardens more often.
The flower buds that look a bit like hot air balloons give Platycodon grandiflorus its common name: Balloon Flower. One of the reasons I really like this plant is its late bloom time. In my garden, it starts blooming at the end of July, and with a little deadheading, continues to flower into the fall. The two bluish-purple cultivars I grow provide a welcome infusion of cool color when most of the plants flowering in my garden seem to be hot colors.
In spring, it's one of the last perennials to emerge from the ground– in fact I find you really have to be careful not to forget it's there and over plant it with something else (Tip: leaving the old plant stems through the winter is a good reminder of the plant's location).
The growth habit of this perennial is more upright than that of Campanula persicifolia. This narrow profile makes Platycodon grandiflorus a good choice for a small garden. To grow well, Balloon flowers like full sun or light shade. They're a perennial that's slow to establish, but Balloon flowers are long-lived and don't require regular division like so many perennials.
This is not a plant without its fair share of problems. The large blooms tend to make the plant top-heavy giving Balloon flowers a tendency to flop. I've always staked my plants, but recently I read somewhere that pinching the plant back in June will make it shorter and more sturdy. I think I may try this next summer and see how it goes.
Varieties of Balloon flower vary in flower size and color and overall plant size. The very popular 'Fuji' series are among the tallest cultivars and produce blue, pink and white flowers.
A few of the single blue cultivars have been rated in a study conducted by the Chicago Botanic Garden (Judged for their growth habits, upright stems, floral displays and hardiness):
'Sentimental Blue' has bluish-purple flowers from early July through to early Sept. Short at just 12" in height. Overall rating: Good
'Baby Blue' has 3 inch, lavender-blue flowers on a shortish plant (20 inches in height). It blooms from early July through to late August. Overall rating: Good
'Astra Blue' has large (3.5 inch), lavender-blue flowers from early July through to early Sept. It typically grows 22 inches in height. Overall rating: Good
'Fuji Blue' has bluish-purple flowers from early July through to early Sept. It's a tall cultivar at 40 inches in height. Overall rating: Good
As well as blue, you can find cultivars with white or pink flowers. A few of the whites available as rated in a the same study are:
'Fairy Snow' aren't pure-white. The flowers are veined with blueish-lavender. It's shortest at 22 inches in height. It flowers from late June into September. Overall rating: Fair
'Fuji White' blooms mid-July to early Sept. 40 inches in height. Overall rating: Good
'Hakone White' has blue veins that fade away as the flowers open. It tends to have more open flowers during its bloom time than 'Fairy Snow'. It's tallest at 43 inches in height. Blooms mid-July to early Sept. Overall rating: Good
A couple of the Pinks:
'Fuji Pink' has 3 inch, pale-pink flowers from early July through to Sept. It reaches 38 inches in height. Overall rating: Good
'Shell Pink' has pale-pink flowers that are half an inch larger than 'Fuji Pink' on a shorter plant (25 inches in height). Overall rating: Fair
A few years back I added the double form of Balloon flower to my garden:
Balloon flower, Platycodon grandiflorus 'Hakone Blue' has single or clusters of double, cup-shaped blue-purple flowers that are two or three inches across. This is a tall, upright perennial that likes full sun or light shade. Height: 45-60 cm (18-24 inches), Spread: 45-50 cm (18-20 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.
The rock garden at Dalhousie University's Agricultural Campus in Truro, Nova Scotia.
I first admired this dwarf form of Platycodon grandiflorus in the rock garden at the Dalhousie University's Agricultural Campus in Truro, Nova Scotia (see more of this amazing rock garden here, here and here). Last summer, I finally tracked a plant down and added it to my own garden.
Platycodon grandiflorus 'Sentimental Blue' is a dwarf selection with purple flowers. Height: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches), Spread: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.
Other than their tendency to flop, there is one other minor downside to Platycodon grandiflorus that I can think of– the spent flowers are a bit unsightly unless you deadhead the plant religiously.
Still I think the plant's benefits far outweigh its faults. In late summer, I always appreciate those starry blooms.
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Just two of the terrific perennials from a large and complex family of plants!
The weedy look-alike– Creeping Bellflower, Campanula rapunculoides
As I said in my introduction– Every family has its share of colorful characters and not all of them are good characters. Creeping Bellflower, Campanula rapunculoides, which is native to south-east Europe and Asia Minor, has become a problem weed here in North America. It has purple flowers that are all on one side of the stem and open from the bottom of the stem upward. This is an invasive plant that can produce up to 15,000 seeds. It also has tuberous roots that spread underground. If you find it in your garden, remove it immediately or it will become a huge problem! Don't use a trowel to do the digging, use a shovel. You need to get right down and get all the carrot-like roots. If you miss even a small part of the root, the problem will be back before you know it!