Enchanting Harebells at Risk

Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. © Karen Andrews

A much-loved plant with witch and devilish associations in folklore that single-handedly tries to justify the use of Latin names. Is it at serious risk of further decline in the Somerset and UK landscape?

Latin Name: Campanula rotundifolia

Vernacular Name: Harebell

Plant Family: Campanulaceae or Bellflower family. Order: Asterales

Other Vernacular Names: Bluebell (this somewhat confusingly means the plant can be muddled with woodland Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta).

Somerset Names: Bellflower, Bluebell, Bluebells of Scotland, Fairy Bells, Fairy Thimble, Granny’s Tears, (Our) Lady’s Thimble, Thimbles, Witches’ Thimbles.

County/CountryLocal Names
BuckinghamshireBluebottle
CheshireHarebell
CumbriaBluebell
DerbyshireBluebell
DevonBellflower, Bluebell, Cuckoos
Donegal, IrelandHarebell
DorsetBellflower, Bluebell, Ding-dongs (Ding-dong Bell), Fairy Cup, Fairy Ringers, Heathbell, Sheep Bells
East Anglia(Our) Lady’s Thimble
GloucestershireThimbles
HertfordshireBluebell
Isle of ManNorthern Harebell
Lanarkshire, ScotlandWitches’ Thimbles
LancashireHarebell
NorthamptonshireHeathbell
Northern Ireland(Our) Lady’s Thimble
Northumberland(Our) Lady’s Thimble
NottinghamshireBluebell
RoxburghshireBlue Blavers
ScotlandBluebell, Blaver, Blawort, Cuckoo’s Thimble, Harebell, (Our) Lady’s Thimble, Old Man’s Bell (i.e. Devil’s), Witch Bells, Witch-bell, Witch-thimble
Scotland, NorthGowk’s Thimles or Thimles (i.e. Cuckoo’s Thimbles), Milk-ort
WiltshireFairy Cap, School Bell, Thimbles
YorkshireBluebell, Harebell
Table 1: List of Local UK and Irish Common Names

Quick ID Characteristics

Botanical drawing of the Harebell
Carl Axel Magnus Lindman / Public domain
  • Nodding, bell-shaped, blue flowers that have a papery-thin texture.
  • Delicate-looking plant that belies its ability to survive in a tough environment.
  • Herbaceous, rhizomatous perennial that blooms from July to November.
  • Leaves tend to be inconspicuous. The basal leaves are round and soon wither. In winter, these leaves are visible as a frost-resistant, green rosette.
  • The upper stem leaves are long and narrow and persist during flowering.
  • Slender, narrow, wiry stems are hairless or sparsely hairy.
  • Presence of latex in all plant parts.
  • Plants can be very variable in size from a solitary, upright flower to branching, sprawling, loose clusters of multiple flowers.

Habitats

  • Well-drained, dry, sunny, open, infertile habitats.
  • Grassland, fixed dunes, rock ledges, roadsides, railway banks, heaths and commons.
  • Tolerant of a wide range of soil pH. Found on both mildly acid and calcareous substrates.
  • Wide altitude range: from sea level up to 1160m in UK; higher elsewhere in Europe.
  • Occasionally found in permanently saturated habitats – e.g. saturated sphagnum turf.
  • Metal-tolerant plant communities exist.
  • Shows a degree of salt tolerance in coastal habitats.
  • Never occurs in deep shade, but can handle drought better than shallow-rooted grasses.
  • Intolerant of areas with high levels of disturbance.
  • Soil fungi (mycorrhizae) have positive effect on growth.
  • Found around ant-hills with short vegetation and dry soils.
  • Persists in fertile soils with strong competition from other plants only if the area is kept open by erosion, land management or toxic concentrations of heavy metals. Ability to regenerate after fire.
  • Rarely dominates any plant community except on shallow, rocky soils where its tap root has an advantage.

Climate

January to July average temperatures of 3.2 to 14.4ºC.

January to July average annual precipitation of 1,104 mm.

Fails to produce seed in colder temperatures and may also lack pollinators.

UK and Global Distribution

Link to BSBI Atlas Distribution Map

Link to National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Atlas Distribution Map. The highest number of NBN records are for South Wiltshire.

Link to Kew’s Plants of the World Online Map – Distribution from Europe to Russian Far East.

Stephens states that the species is widespread and locally common in the British Isles. Absences are striking in Ireland, the West Country, the Wash area and inland in North-western Scotland. The Wash absence is explained by the fact the land was largely reclaimed from the sea or drained in historic times for cultivation. Intense cultivation and historic land use do not explain the other gaps.

The flower seems to vary its habitat in different parts of Britain. For example, it is common on roadsides on higher ground in Wales. It grows abundantly on banks, sparse hedgerows and well-drained woodland edges.

According to the BSBI Atlas, there has been no significant change in the range of the species. However, there have been some local declines at the edges of its range. BSBI considers that ‘its absence from some apparently suitable areas, especially in South West England is very difficult to explain‘. Research has shed some light on this worrying decline since these words were written.

Stephens notes that the majority of losses in the South West of England were pre-1970 and 1970 to 1986. Scottish losses relate to 1970 to 1999. Evidence of more recent, ongoing decline is backed up by the annual Plantlife Common Plant survey. The Harebell Hunt was the focus of its 2005 survey. The Bellflower family or Campanulaceae is seen as a barometer as its species are affected by habitat loss, decline in grazing and coppicing, increased use of herbicides and removal of hedgerows.

Somerset Distribution

South Somerset (VC5): Scarce North Somerset (VC6): Not Scarce

Campanula rotundifolia is a native plant in Somerset at the edge of its range. The future behaviour of such plants is recognised as unpredictable. According to Flora of the Bristol Region, it is uncommon locally. It is more common in calcareous than acidic habitats in this area. The Green Brothers observed that it was common on the Mendips but very rare elsewhere.

Conservation Status

Great Britain Status: Least Concern (LC)

England Status: Least Concern (LC) Near Threatened (NT). The notes observe that a population reduction where the causes of reduction may not have ceased, may not be understood or may not be reversible based on a 23% reduction in the area of occupancy. Campanula rotundifolia does not compete well with vigorous grasses. Stevens’ research found that the species had a strong negative association with nitrogen deposition.

Natural England reported in 2014 that a fifth of all England’s wildflower species are under threat. This decline amounts to 30% or more for the majority of the threatened species. The press release was accompanied by a photo of the Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia, as a former familiar species that is declining across its entire range and is now alarmingly close to being red-listed as threatened. There is a marked contrast between being widespread on upland areas and in severe decline in lowland areas.

It seems extraordinary that Campanula rotundifolia recognised as resilient in a number of different habitats should be in decline. Its struggles do not bode well for other, less resilient wild flowers.

Threats

Losses are likely to be due to the combination of multiple factors.

Poor Grazing Management

A Swedish study found lower incidence in restored rather than traditionally managed, continuously grazed grasslands (1945-1998). Harebell showed a lower frequency in restored (28-54%) and abandoned grasslands (28-62%) than continuously grazed sites (42-80%). It did not emerge at all in abandoned grasslands.

Nitrogen Deposition

Crawley observes that the plant is ‘less common nowadays, perhaps as a result of fertiliser pollution and acid rain‘. The former is backed by Stevens’ research. However, atmospheric nitrogen deposition is a factor in many different habitats due to agricultural intensification.

Decline in Pollinating Insects

Researchers have noted a marked decline in pollinating insects. This could be a particular issue for isolated communities at the edge of the plant’s range.

Reproduction

This is an insect-pollinated species. Bees are the noted main visitors, although they are generalists rather than specialists. New research to identify exact pollinators would help establish any issues with pollinator availability.

The floral structure is designed for cross-pollination and hinders self-pollination. Flowers shed pollen just before they open. They ensure pollen release before the stigma is receptive. Insects probing for nectar come into contact with pollen on the style hairs. Any remaining pollen is dispersed by the wind.

Self-incompatible pollination may limit the production of viable seeds in isolated plants. Mycorrhizal plants are more self-compatible than those without root fungi.

Campanula rotundifolia spreads by both seed and rhizome. Large quantities of seed are produced in the wild. Seed set occurs from August onwards. The fruit is a globular capsule that sheds seeds through pores near its base. Exposed capsules may be trampled and break off before full maturation. Most seeds will have been shed by early December.

Seed dispersal only occurs at short distances. They disperse by wind, rain or grazing. Seedlings will not develop in shade. Germination awaits warmer months.

Biodiversity Support

Important autumnal nectar source for bees and bumblebees.

Campanula rotundifolia is described as a food plant for the following species (it even appears as an epithet in some of their Latin names):

  • Eriophyes campanulae
  • Eriophyes schmardai
  • Miarus campanulae
  • Miarus graminis
  • Amauromyza gyrans
  • Ophiomyia heringi
  • Phytomyza campanulae
  • Contarinia campanulae
  • Dasineura campanulae
  • Geocrypta campanulae
  • Geocrypta trachelii
  • Strongylocoris leucocephalus
  • Dactynotus campanulae
  • Dysaphis sorbi
  • Eupithecia subfuscata
  • Polymixis xanthomista ssp. statices
  • Standfussiana lucernea
  • Xestia ashworthii
  • Thrips vulgatissimus

Given the noted decline in invertebrates, a review is probably overdue against species found in the UK today.

Self-protection

The presence of latex is believed to have a self-protective and healing role. This has not been researched and proven directly in the species. It may offer protection from browsing animals and voracious caterpillars.

Gallery of Images

All photos © Karen Andrews. Top left to bottom right: Harebells, Campanula rotundifolia, in grassland at Cheddar Gorge (4) and Brean Down, Somerset with bee inside corolla (1 shot).

Further Details

Plant Family

There is an ongoing debate between taxonomic experts over the Campanulaceae. Different authors currently do not arrive at the same conclusions. Taxonomic disagreements relate to the evolutionary process. Campanula is the largest genus in Campanulaceae with 17 species in the UK to 144 in Europe. Campanula rotundifolia exacerbates the taxonomic debate by being an extremely variable species.

Plant Naming

Binomial: Campanula rotundifolia L.

Genus: Campanula – Latin for little bell.

Epithet: rotundifolia = round-leaved (although only the basal leaves are round and not always visible)

Botanical abbreviation: L = Linnaeus. The abbreviation tells us that Linnaeus himself named this species.

Harebell Name: The original of the name Harebell is unclear. It was rumoured that witches used the flowers to turn themselves into hares. An alternative explanation is that they are commonly found in the same habitats as hares.

Other Language Vernacular Names:

Gaelic: bròg na cubhaig (Cuckoo’s Shoe)

Irish Gaelic: méaracan púca (Thimble of the Puca or Goblin)

Isle of Man: mairanyn ferish (Fairies’ Thimble)

Welsh: Cloch y Bugail

Icelandic: bláklukka (Bluebell)

Russian: колокольчик (kolokolchik = Little Bell)

Subspecies

Campanula rotundifolia subsp. montana (Syme) P. D. Sell – 61 occurrences on NBN Atlas. Narrow and acute stem leaves. Obconical capsules. 2n = 68 found throughout the British Isles.

Campanula rotundifolia subsp. rotundifolia L. – 42 occurrences on NBN Atlas. Stem leaves are broader. Mostly found in uplands, Ireland, Western Scotland, Isle of Man and extreme South West of England. Possibly endemic.

Chromosomes

UK communities are mainly tetraploid and hexaploid. Occasional pentaploid.

2n = 68 and 102 predominate in the British Isles.

Stephens notes that gaps in species distribution in South West England and North West Scotland occur at boundaries between hexaploid and tetraploid cytotypes.

Additional Morphological Facts

  • Inflorescence is racemose with one to many flowers on slender pedicels.
  • Usually 5-lobed corolla, 5 stamens, cream anthers, 1 style, 3 stigmas, 5-lobed calyx.
  • Rootstock is slender, elongated and much branched with adventitious buds. A white tap root is occasionally present.
  • Leaf margins with hydathodes.
  • All British plants show short, stiff, white hairs on the lower part of the stem.
  • Flower size and numbers vary with environmental conditions.

Phenology

Flowering is later than many species. Peak flowering is in late July to August. Flowering stems tend to appear from late June. The first flowers generally open in July. The average first flowering date is 9-10 July. It flowers first in Southern Ireland, South East England and East England. The latest flowers to arrive are in Northern Ireland, West, East and North Scotland.

Simon Leach of the Somerset Rare Plants Group (SRPG) has been recording first flowering dates since 2008 in Somerset. His observations have shown that the first flowering dates have been markedly earlier than they were in the 1920s and 1930s. 2011 was an exceptional year with unprecedented early flowering for many species. February was warm, followed by an April that was almost 4ºC above the longer term average. All species combined were about 20 days earlier than in past records.

2020 First Flowering Date

The Somerset first flowering date for Campanula rotundifolia was on 6th July at Blackmoor. This is an historic lead-mining region of the Mendip Hills.

Ecology

Averis states that Campanula rotundifolia is found in short, grazed, unimproved grassland against the following National Vegetation Classifications (NVC):

  • U1Festuca ovina – Agrostis capillaris – Rumex acetosella grassland
  • U4Festuca ovina – Agrostis capillaris – Galium saxatile grassland
  • MG5Cynosurus cristatus – Centaurea nigra grassland
  • CG1Festuca ovina – Carlina vulgaris grassland
  • CG2Festuca ovina – Helictotrichon pratense grassland
  • CG7Festuca ovina – Pilosella officinarum – Thymus polytrichus/pulegioides grassland
  • CG8Sesleria caerulea – Scabiosa columbaria grassland
  • CG9Sesleria caerulea – Galium sterneri grassland
  • CG10Festuca ovina – Agrostis capillaris – Thymus polytrichus grassland

Stephens includes the following additional National Vegetation Classifications:

  • Calcicolous grassland: CG3, CG4, CG5, CG6, CG11, CG12, CG13, CG14
  • Calcifugous grassland: U5, U10, U13, U14, U15, U16, U17, U19, U20, U22, U23, U24
  • Mesotrophic grassland: MG1, MG2, MG3 (MG5 not included)
  • Heathland: H1, H10, H12, H16, H18
  • Mire: M11
  • Sand dune: SD7, SD8, SD9, SD11, SD12
  • Maritime cliff: MC9
  • Woodland: W11, W19, W20, W23.

Plant Diseases

56 species of fungi, most notably:

  • Leptotrochila radicans
  • Coleosporium tussilaginis
  • Puccinia campanulae

History

The first published and illustrated record of the Harebell was in Gerard’s 1597 Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes.

Cultural References

The Harebell features strongly in folklore.

Postage Stamps

  • Isle of Man: The Harebell featured in a series of 6 Manx Wild Flowers in commemoration of the 200th Anniversary of the Royal Horticultural Society in 2004. It was the 40p stamp in the series and the flower was described as the Northern Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia. The other wild flower stamps in the series were Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria now Ficaria verna) 25p; Red Campion (Silene dioica) 28p; Devil’s Bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) 37p; Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa) 68p; Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) 85p.
  • Finland: two separate designs have featured the Harebell.
  • Sweden: 2.60 denomination stamp describes the Bluebell but looks like a Harebell
  • Norway: 5.00 denomination in a series of 5 flower stamps.
  • Aruba: a 200c stamp.

References and Further Reading

Articles

King, T. J. (1977): The Plant Ecology of Ant-Hills in Calcareous Grassland: 1. Patterns of Species in Relation to Ant-hills in Southern England. Journal of Ecology. Vol. 65, No. 1 (Mar., 1977), pp. 235-256. Last accessed 9 August 2020.

Lindborg R., Cousins S.A.O. & Eriksson O. (2005) Plant species response to land use change – Campanula rotundifolia, Primula veris and Rhinanthus minorEcography, Vol. 28, pp.29-36. Conservation Evidence. Last accessed 8 August 2020.

Stevens, Carly J. & Wilson, Julia & McAllister, Hugh A. (2012): Biological Flora of the British Isles: Campanula rotundifolia. Journal of Ecology. Volume 100, Issue 3. May 2012. pp.821-839. British Ecological Society. Last accessed 7 August 2020

Books

Averis, Ben (2013): Plants and Habitats. An introduction to common plants and their habitats in Britain and Ireland. Forestry Commission Scotland.

Crawley, Michael J. (2005): The Flora of Berkshire. Brambleby Books. Harpenden, UK.

Green, Ian P. & Higgins, Rupert J. & Kitchen, Clare & Kitchen, Mark A. R. (2000): The Flora of the Bristol Region. Wildlife of the Bristol Region: 1. Ed. Sarah L. Myles. Bristol Regional Environmental Records Centre. Pisces Publications. UK.

Green, Paul R. & Green Ian P. & Crouch, Geraldine A. (1997): The Atlas Flora of Somerset. (self-published). Somerset, UK.

Grigson, Geoffrey (1996): The Englishman’s Flora. Helicon. Oxford.

Harrap, Simon (2013): Harrap’s Wild Flowers. A Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland. Bloomsbury. London.

O’Reilly, Pat & Parker, Sue (2005-7): Wonderful Wildflowers of Wales. Volume 1 Woodland and Waysides. (p. 61). First Nature. Llandysul, Wales.

Rose, Francis (2006): The Wild Flower Key. How to identify wild flowers, trees and shrubs in Britain and Ireland. Revised, expanded edition by Clare O’Reilly. Warne. Penguin Group. London.

Stace, Clive (2010): New Flora of the British Isles. Third Edition. Cambridge.

Sterry, Paul (2006): Collins Complete Guide to British Wild Flowers. (pp. 192-3). HarperCollins. London.

Streeter, David et al. (2016): Collins Wild Flower Guide. The Most Complete Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland. 2nd Edition. HarperCollins. London

Other Online Links

Cheffings, C.M. & Farrell, L. (Eds), Dines, T.D., Jones, R.A., Leach, S.J., McKean, D.R., Pearman, D.A., Preston, C.D., Rumsey, F.J., Taylor, I. (2005): The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain. Species Status 7: 1-116. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough.

Ellis, R. Preston, C. and Stewart, K. (2005). People and Plants – mapping the UK’s wild flora.The final report of the Making It Count for People and Plants. A joint initiative between Plantlife and the BSBI. Plantlife, Salisbury, UK.

Leach, Simon (2020): Simon’s roundups for weeks 1-20, Week 20 Roundup – 5th August & Week 16 Roundup. Somerset Rare Plants Group (SRPG). Last accessed 9 August 2020,

Natural England (2014): One in five vascular plants are threatened with extinction. 17 September 2014. Last accessed 9 August 2020.

SPRG (2012): Members Slide and Talk Evening. Saturday 18th February 2012. Somerset Rare Plants Group Newsletter 2012. Issue No. 13. December 2012. Ed. Caroline Giddens. Last accessed 9 August 2020.

SPRG (2020): Somerset Rare Plant Register. Last accessed 9 August 2020.

SPRG (2020): Campanula rotundifolia. Somerset Rare Plant Register 2020. Last accessed 9 August 2020.

Stroh, P. A. et al. (2019): A Vascular Plant Red List for England. BSBI download. Last accessed 9 August 2020.

Wildlife Trusts Wales (?): Harebell. Last accessed 9 August 2020.

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and BotanyKaren.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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