Botanical Gardens: A Trio of Bellworts

By Suzanne Wodek, Asheville Botanical Gardens

The Botanical Gardens is fortunate to have three species of bellwort. With common names of Merry Bells, Fairy Bells, Straw Lily, and Wild Oats, they conjure up wonderful, magical images.

The botanical name for Merry Bells is Uvularia perfoliata, referring to the way the stem seems to pierce through the leaf blade with a soft yellow flower hanging downward like a bell. The leaves are elliptical and the flower is just over an inch long. At eight to 20 inches tall, they produce a three-angled fruit pod after the flower blooms. Plant them in a partially shaded area in rich, moist but well-drained soil.

Fairy Bells (Uvularia grandiflora) is a taller (one to two feet) perfoliate bellwort with two-inch flowers. Plant where dappled sunlight is available in spring and light shade during the summer months. The soil should be moderately moist and loamy with a layer of decaying leaves. Locate this plant underneath a deciduous tree that does not cast heavy shade during the summer.

Straw Lily and/or Wild Oats (Uvularia sessilifolia), grows to six to 12 inches tall, and has a delicate, creamcolored single flower—or sometimes pairs—hanging belllike from the stems. They thrive best in areas with deep leaf mold and high shade from a deciduous tree woods.

Bellwort was sometimes used to cure throat problems because, according to the “doctrine of signatures,” it was thought that the blossoms look like the uvula (that pink appendage which hangs down the back of the throat). The doctrine of signatures was an important part of folk medicine from the Middle Ages until early modern times. Associated with the work of herbalists and wise women, it was believed that natural objects that looked like a part of the body could cure diseases of the actual body part.

On a culinary note, young shoots can be cooked and used as a substitute for asparagus.

Join us this month for a Natural Tree and Shrub Walk with Ron Lance on Sunday, May 15, from 2–4 p.m., and Simon Thompson will lead a Bird Walk from 8–10 a.m. on Sunday, May 22.

The Botanical Gardens (, located at 151 W.T. Weaver Boulevard, is a nonprofit organization housing a collection of plants native to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated and memberships are encouraged.

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