Those bells - those bells
About 25 years ago, whilst walking in a wooded area of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, I was bedazzled by a beautiful American belle. Despite being happily married with two lovely daughters I fell hopelessly in love. The love was unrequited but I pined for a re-acquaintance. This came years later after the death of my wife. It was on our Groups first plant hunting trip to Crûg Farm and Aberconwy Nurseries where I met the lovely American again, this time with her smaller cousin. They were, of course, Uvularia grandiflora and U. perfoliata.
Since then I have never let them go. For me they are the loveliest of the spring flowers. Each year I wait anxiously for the appearance of U. grandiflora and convince myself that I have lost it. One day I cant see it then the next day I spot the developing flowers hidden amongst the spreading clumps of yellow flowered viola and the leaves of Helleborus foetidus. A little judicious clearing and I am ready to enjoy the flowers again.
The Americans call the subject of my obsession the Large Flowered Bellwort and its cousin Perfoliate Bellwort or Straw Bells. They call its more discrete relative U. sessilifolia, which I am yet to find, Straw Lilies or Sessile Bellwort. I have also yet to possess U. caroliniana and U. disporum although they are listed in the Plant Finder.
Whilst Uvularia is endemic to North America, a closely related and nearly as beautiful genus Disporum is found both there and in Eastern Asia. I first saw these, some in pots, in Stone Hill Quarry Garden. Now I gloat over a small collection in my own shade borders.
I will not try to catalogue all the species. Dan Hinkley asserts that there are at least 40 species worldwide and the Plant Finder lists 22 plus a number of varieties and cultivars.
I have only one of the North American species, D. maculatum which has white flowers spotted with purple. The Americans call it Nodding Mandarin. More striking is the asiatic D. megalanthum which has the bonus of blue black berries on an extended flower stalk in autumn. Lovely blue black berries are also produced by D. leucanthum which has flared white flowers. Yellow flowers, not unlike those of Uvularia, are shown by D. lutescens. I have D. cantoniense 'Night Heron' in a pot, with the intention of using it again at Malvern in 2009. I also have a specimen of D. nantouense, a species much praised by Dan Hinkley, which should be a good plant in 2009.
I have only a small sample of the species of Disporum which are available but I will be putting my hand in my pocket for more. This year has been perfect for both Uvularia and Disporum. How I will cope with a drier summer is yet to be seen; perhaps I will have to invest in a trickle hose system (meanly regulated of course).
Both genera seem to be fairly pest-free apart from slugs and snails. However, I did hear Matthew Biggs on Gardeners Question Time warning that the lily beetle will attack Uvularia. That has not been my experience. Only Lilium and Cardiocrinum have been attacked. Provado came to the rescue very effectively - blow all that hand picking of adult beetles and disgusting larvae.
First published in the Staffordshire Group Newsletter, Autumn 2008
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 26.
© Copyright for this article: Ben Green
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.