Only Hares Can Hear Them

Fairy thimbles; harebell at far right

Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) got this vernacular name from the folk belief that the flowers actually rang like bells to warn hares against approaching predators. Other names suggest a connection to magic: witch’s thimble or fairies’ thimbles, fairy bells or devil’s bells. The association with the “Good Folk” means that harebells were rarely used for herbal medicine because disturbing the plant in any way could offend the fairies.

The old vernacular names for Campanula (probably) represent actual pre-Christian pagan beliefs, but interestingly at least one source refers to the Victorians’ belief that fairies slept in the bells. The Victorian return to pagan beliefs came in the wake of the Romantic revival of the early 19th century that also expressed itself in the emergence and popularity of Pre-Raphaelite painting with its frequent depiction of Classical mythological figures and Arthurian personages, who while nominally Christian, seemed to live a world full of pagan hangovers like Merlin and the Lady of the Lake.

"Bluebells of Scotland"

In Scotland it is called the “bluebell” and the plant is closely associated with the clan MacDonald, which even uses it to make a dye for one of the colors of its tartan.

There are so many species introduced to North America from Europe that it is almost surprising to run across a Holarctic species like C. rotundifolia; it occurs naturally in both the eastern and western portions of the northern hemisphere. Although plants introduced to North America by early colonists sometimes worked their way into tribal lore, the harebell has a place there because is was already present when the first North Americans walked over the Bering Land Bridge during the last Ice Age.

The Haida, a tribe of the Pacific Northwest, call the harebell “the blue rain flower,” telling their children that picking it would make it rain. Given that the Haida’s homeland (the Haida Gwaii) is the site of a temperate rainforest, there seems to have been a lot of flower picking going on. A similar effect was attributed to the Haida’s “red rain flower,” more widely known as the columbine (Aquilegia formosa).

The Dine (Navajo) have no fear of the fairy folk but, as any reader of Tony Hillerman novels knows, they are afraid of witches and suspect their presence whenever things go awry in an inexplicable way. According to Alchemy Works (alchemy-works.com), the Dine picked the plant and rubbed it on their bodies to ward off witchcraft. Interestingly the Dine also believe in shape-shifting, which is also a part of the pagan tradition of the British Isles, where the sap of harebells was used by witches to turn themselves into hares.

Harebells are also called “round-leaved bellflower,” which at first glance is an odd name. The plant often grows in meadows, so usually only the top two-thirds of it is visible. These leaves are narrow, almost needle-like, on this part of the plant. It is only the basal leaves that are bluntly toothed and rounded, resembling miniature colts-foot leaves.

The flowers begin to appear in June and the blooms continue through September. They are more conate when they first open, the teeth at the end of the fused petals pointing straight out. As the flower ages the tips of the teeth curve outward and backward.

The invasive bellflower

This is an adaptable plant, growing in a variety of habitats over a wide geographical range. But in suburban or more disturbed settings the European or rampion bellflower (C. rampuncoloides) is likely to be found instead. The flowers are a similar color, but the teeth are longer and narrower. The leaves are broader than the needles of rotundifolia and are more clearly arranged in a helix going up the stem. The flowers wind up the stem as well and are mounted closer to it than those of the native Campanula. Rampion bellflower is apparently thought of as invasive and is difficult to eradicate because it has an 18-inch long taproot.

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