Olympica Harebells

'Olympica' Bluebells-of-Scotland, aka:
Alpine Scotch Bluebell,
Witches' Harebells,
Witches' Thimbles,
Lady's Thimbles,
Fairies' Thimbles,
Devil's Bells,
Aul Man's Bells,
Dead Men's Bells,
Heath Bells
Milk Ort
Cuckoo's Hood

"Mourn, little harebells, o'er the lea."

- Robert Burns,
Elegy on Capt. Matthew Henderson

"I love the fair lilies & roses so gay,
They are rich in their pride & their splendor;
But still more do I love to wander away
To the meadow so sweet,
Where down at my feet,
The harebell blooms modest & tender."

- Dora Read Goodale,
Queen Harebell


Very widely distributed throughout the northern hemisphere, Campanula rotundifolia is native to right herein the Pacific Northwest, ranging northward to the arctic, & it is just as common in Great Britain & Northern Europe, Iceland, Finland, & so on round the top of the globe. The variety called 'Olympica' is from the nearby Olympic Mountains. The Haida Indians called them "blue rain flowers" & children were warned not to pick them, or it would rain.

It will do well in zones three through nine, from sealevel to mountain heights. Throughout its hemispheric range it has subspecies & varients that have assisted in developing unique garden strains of which 'Olympica' is particularly small, growing to only eight or ten inches height.

The basal leaves are small & round, as the species name refers to. The one-inch violet-blue bellflowers nod atop wire-thin stems, that last well in tiny bouquets. Here in the Northwest it blooms from May to first frosts, & throughout its range is floriferous in summer. In temperate or warm areas, deadheading will extend blossoming well into autumn, but the flowers are so numerous it can sometimes be burdensome to deadhead.

The clumps have a delicate appearance, but are quite tough, needing to be divided every few years as they naturalize. Only poorly draining soil can kill them. They like moderately rich soil, but also thrive in in poor dry soil, or in wetter gardens if there is perfect drainage & they don't steep in dampness. Neutral to slightly alkaline soils are probably its favorite, but our naturally acidic soils support it also. Full sun is best, but they'll tolerate some shade if they have to.

At the height of summer they shouldn't be too droughty or they won't bloom as well. They benifit from occasional fertilizing.

Such a widespread perennial is bound to have picked up many names throughout its range. Such names as Bluebells-of-Scotland, Alpine Scotch Harebells or Heath Bells has misled some gardeners into supposing the wide range of this plant is due to Scottish people bringing it with them everywhere they travelled, yet its range is naturally hemispheric, so that west coast hikers know it as California Harebell, yet at the same time it occasionally shares with C. carpatica the name Carpathian Bellflower. Still, it's association with Scotland is strong, as it is the symbol of the MacDonald clan, & was formerly used in the manufacture of blue dye for tartans.

Scotts have blessed it with a great many names, though generally only the English call it Harebells. In the 1800s rural Scotland it was sometimes called "Gowk's Thummles," the cuckoo's thimbles, or the Gaelic "Brog na cubhaig," cuckoo's hood. Many plants that have accumulated superstitions are called the Cuckoo's this or that. Gowk meant both Cuckoo & Fool, & Fools were generally believed to be fairy-touched. There is a theory that the Gowk or Fool originated in the Dark Ages as a name the Saxons had for the Britons as arch enemies, & carries still some of the meaning of the "Devil" as the Arch Foe, who is likened the Fool here & there in scripture's Proverbs. There lingers a tradition of Gowk's Day (April Fools Day, but in Scotland held April 13 when the cuckoo begins to call), when children are sent on a Gowk Hunt (in America this became the Snipe Hunt of young campers & scouts). Anyone tricked into going on a Gowk Hunt is for the rest of that day called Gowk or Idiot. An innocent game, but because the voice of the cuckoo was believed to beckon the souls of the dead, & songbirds generally were messengers who could travel between the world of the living & the dead, the supernatural associations for any flower named for the Gowk, Cubhaig or Cuckoo runs deep.

Some names alluded only to the flower's color, Blaver, Blaewort, or Blue blavers being Gaelic dialect variations of Bluebells. But more often the names were much more imaginative. Harebells alludes to a folk belief that witches used juices squeezed from this flower to transform themselves into hares, & these juices lent the flower another Scottish folk name, "Milk-ort" (milk herb).

Fairies were thought to dwell within these flowers, so that this species was sometimes known as Fairy Bells, or on the Isle of Mann as Fairies' Thimbles, a name shared here & there with other small species of campanula, especially the diminuative C. cochlearifolia.

The flowers in folklore assist mortals in spying upon the fairies, but were bad luck because they could also reveal or even attract evil spirits, including the Devil himself, hence those other folklorish name in Britain, Devil's Bells. They are also called Dead Men's or Dead Man's Bells, because whoever hears the campanula bells reinging is doomed to die. When called "Aul Man's Bells," however, the Aul or Old Man being a polite way of naming the Devil without getting his attention by the speaking of his name. As a garden weed, it was generally left unpulled for fear offending the Aul Man or the fairies, hence, despite its cursedness, it was in every garden.

Yet modern vendors of herbs & flower essences don't have much luck selling stuff that conjures devils & fairies, & have done their best to revamp the Harebell image. Essence of C. rotundifolia is sold by Findhorn Flower Essences to those who believe superstitiously in smell-therapy, & this essence is said to realign meridians of the soul for greater psychological health, increase the body's flow of vital energy, brace up one's faith, & bring about personal wealth. All pretty much reversals of the actual folklore, unless of course the user is a witch or sorcerer counting on the devil!

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C. glomerata 'Joan Elliott' clustered bellflower


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