What are Canterbury Bells?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Canterbury bells (Campanula medium), which are thought to be native to the Pyrenees, have long been grown in many parts of Europe and adapt well to some other regions. Their appearance makes their name easy to understand. On tall stalks of about 2-3 feet (.61-.91 m), 1-2 inch (2.54-5.08) long bell-shaped flowers in deep or light purple, pink or white cluster during the blooming season of spring and summer. These flowers are often mistakenly called annuals, but when planted from seed, they’re actually biennials, which means they need a year to establish foliage and then will bloom the second year. After that, they’ll need to be replaced with new plants, although sometimes a plant reseeds itself.

Canterbury bells have a high nectar content that helps to attract bees.
Canterbury bells have a high nectar content that helps to attract bees.

There’s much to praise about Canterbury bells, despite the biennial need for replacement. They’re generally considered to have low toxicity or be non-toxic, which makes them excellent additions in gardens frequented by pets or children. Many people compare then in appearance to digitalis or foxglove, though the flowers for Canterbury bells are larger. The principal advantage to using Campanula medium instead of digitalis is that it avoids possible contact with a very poisonous plant. The flowers also have a high nectar content, which attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, adding to a garden’s appeal.

Several variants of Canterbury bells exist, and one of the most desired is called the cup and saucer bell. Instead of having a single bell, these plants, which are known by the full scientific name, campanula medium var calycanthema have double flowers, creating a cup and saucer appearance. Due to the extra weight of the double flower, a little extra gardening work may be required. It’s often necessary to put up stakes to support the plant. On the other hand, the flowers are impressive, and both single and double-flower Canterbury bells can either be enjoyed on the plant or as long-lasting cut flowers.

Certain regions tend to be most appropriate for Canterbury bells. They prosper in climates that are either cold or temperate. The plants don't do very well in very hot, dry or tropical environments. The best way to determine if these plants are suitable is to ask a local gardening store if they’ll prosper. Generally, local nurseries won’t stock the plants if they won’t grow well.

Directions for campanula medium suggest that the flowers be planted in partial shade to sun. Soil should be moist but well drained and campanula does require frequent watering. Those who are impatient to get to the blooming cycle may be able to either purchase Canterbury bells that are in bloom, though these will have a short life, or start plants in the winter, indoors. Many gardening experts recommend regularly deadheading dead blossoms, as this can result in additional blooming. Usually the blooming cycle finishes by mid-summer and the plants should be removed from the garden by mid-autumn when frost begins.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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