A blue period

It’s about plants — the chaste tree, balloon flowers, bellflowers — moving from Palo Alto through the Swiss Alps and on to the Eastern European Wilds, the Carpathians. Mostly a portrait in blue, with digressions into purple, pink, and white. I start with Pablo Picasso’s self-portrait Blue of 1901, which inaugurated his Blue Period:

(#1) Picasso, very blue, at the age of 20

And a bow here to William H. Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (1976), described by Brian Dillon in a 3/15/14 Guardian review of its reissue this way:

the entire book is a catalogue of sorts containing blue things, desires, concepts and usages

My story starts on Wednesday, with a visit to Palo Alto’s Gamble Garden, where my attention was arrested by a gorgeous small tree (or very large shrub), a chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) in full purplish-blue bloom:

(#2) The tree in full

(#3) The tree close up

On the tree, see my 9/12/15 posting “Chaste trees and jumping spiders”. When I wrote that posting, it was September and the tree’s blossom time was over, so I posted a photo from the net.

On the other side of the fence in the photos, there blooms a pink balloon flower:

(#4) Mauve-pink balloon flowers

(Photos #2-4 by Juan Gomez.)

These are fancy cultivars. Your standard balloon flower is blue, like this:


From Wikipedia:

Platycodon grandiflorus (from Ancient Greek πλατύς “wide” and κώδων “bell”) is a species of herbaceous flowering perennial plant of the family Campanulaceae, and the only member of the genus Platycodon. It is native to East Asia (China, Korea, Japan, and the Russian Far East). It is commonly known as balloon flower (referring to the balloon-shaped flower buds), Chinese bellflower, or platycodon.

Growing to 60 cm (24 in) tall by 30 cm (12 in) wide, it is an herbaceous perennial with dark green leaves and blue flowers in late summer. A notable feature of the plant is the flower bud which swells like a balloon before fully opening. The five petals are fused together into a bell shape at the base, like its relatives, the campanulas. There are varieties with white, pink and purple blooms in cultivation

The plant family here (#73 in the inventory on this blog), from Wikipedia:

The family Campanulaceae (also bellflower family), of the order Asterales, contains nearly 2400 species in 84 genera of herbaceous plants, shrubs, and rarely small trees, often with milky non-toxic sap. Among them are the familiar garden plants Campanula (bellflower), Lobelia, and Platycodon (balloonflower).

Platycodon’s campanula cousins (especially the wildflowers) are also mostly blue or purple-blue, like this one:

(#6) Campanula carpatica: Carpathian bellflower, Carpathian harebell

I’ll get to the Carpathian connection in a while. But first, from Wikipedia on the genus:

Campanula is one of several genera in the family Campanulaceae with the common name bellflower. It takes both its common and its scientific name from its bell-shaped flowers — campanula is Latin for “little bell”.

The genus includes over 500 species and several subspecies, distributed across the temperate and subtropical regions of the Northern Hemisphere, with the highest diversity in the Mediterranean region east to the Caucasus. The range also extends into mountains in tropical regions of Asia and Africa.

The species include annual, biennial and perennial plants, and vary in habit from dwarf arctic and alpine species under 5 cm high, to large temperate grassland and woodland species growing to 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) tall.

… Well-known species include the northern temperate Campanula rotundifolia, commonly known as harebell in England and bluebell in Scotland and Ireland (though it is not closely related to the true bluebells), and the southern European Campanula medium, commonly known as Canterbury bells (a popular garden plant in the United Kingdom) [also known as cup and saucer plant]. As well as several species occurring naturally in the wild in northern Europe, there are many cultivated garden species.

(#7) C. medium, cups and saucers, a favorite plant in British gardens

… The species Campanula rapunculus, commonly known as rampion bellflower, rampion, or rover bellflower, is a biennial vegetable which was once widely grown in Europe for its spinach-like leaves and radish-like roots. The Brothers Grimm’s tale Rapunzel took its name from this plant. [The specific name rapunculus is a diminutive of the Latin rapa (turnip) and means ‘little turnip’, referring to the shape of the root.]

(#8) The Rapunzel plant, C. rapunculus, or rampion

Love the Rapunzel connection and the Latin name.

We have now moved from the U.S. through the U.K. to middle Europe. Time now to go to my 19th-century Swiss handbook Alpen-Flora (mentioned here several times already, most extensively in a Fathers Day posting). Plate 11, with bellflowers (Glockenblumen) and rampions (Rapunzeln):


From the Alps to the Carpathians. We start in the Alps:


in a long arc from southeastern France to northwestern Slovenia, also taking in Monaco and Liechtenstein and parts of Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. To the east of the Alps there is the crescent of the Carpathians:

(#11) Map of the main divisions of the Carpathians. 1. Outer Western Carpathians 2. Inner Western Carpathians 3. Outer Eastern Carpathians 4. Inner Eastern Carpathians 5. Southern Carpathians 6. Western Romanian Carpathians 7. Transylvanian Plateau 8. Serbian Carpathians

From Wikipedia:

The Carpathian Mountains or Carpathians are a mountain range system forming an arc roughly 1,500 km (932 mi) long across Central and Eastern Europe…

They provide the habitat for the largest European populations of brown bears, wolves, chamois and lynxes, with the highest concentration in Romania, as well as over one third of all European plant species. The Carpathians and their foothills also have many thermal and mineral waters, with Romania having one-third of the European total. Romania is likewise home to the second largest surface of virgin forests in Europe after Russia, totaling 250,000 hectares (65%), most of them in the Carpathians, with the Southern Carpathians constituting Europe’s largest unfragmented forested area.

The Carpathians consist of a chain of mountain ranges that stretch in an arc from the Czech Republic in the northwest through Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and Ukraine to Romania and Serbia.

Note the botanical richness of the Carpathians. Which brings us to the plant in #6:

Campanula carpatica, the tussock bellflower or Carpathian harebell, is a species of flowering plant in the family Campanulaceae, native to the Carpathian Mountains of Central Europe. It is a low-growing herbaceous perennial, with long stems bearing solitary blue bell-shaped flowers. It was introduced to the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew in 1774 by Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin [physician, chemist, and botanist; his children were friends of Mozart, who dedicated a number of works to the family]. Several cultivars in shades of white, blue, pink and purple, have been developed for garden use. (Wikipedia link)

(As a general rule, if you start with a blue wild plant, with some work you can probably breed to get purple, pink, and white variants. Getting to blue from plants that are natively only in the red – orange – yellow range is harder.)

Bonus: lobelias. There are three genera in the bellflower family that are widely cultivated as garden plants — Platycodon, Campanula, Lobelia — and all three have many species with spectacular blue flowers. To add to the ones above, I now go on to the lobelias. From Wikipedia:

Lobelia is a genus of flowering plants comprising 415 species, with a subcosmopolitan distribution primarily in tropical to warm temperate regions of the world, a few species extending into cooler temperate regions.

… The genus Lobelia comprises a substantial number of large and small annual, perennial and shrubby species, hardy and tender, from a variety of habitats, in a range of colours. Many species appear totally dissimilar from each other. However, all have simple, alternate leaves and two-lipped tubular flowers, each with five lobes.

… The genus is named after the Belgian botanist Matthias de Lobel (1538–1616).

… Several species are cultivated as ornamental plants in gardens. These include Lobelia cardinalis syn. Lobelia fulgens (cardinal flower or Indian pink), Lobelia siphilitica (blue lobelia), and Lobelia erinus, which is used for edging and window boxes.

Two hybrid lobelias, one in the purple-bue range, the other with sky-blue flowers:



Lobelias (and closely related genera) come in a variety of colors, including reds and intense pinks. Here’s a handsome pink cardinal flower:


Even yellows, in the closely related Monopsis lutea, so-called gold lobelia:


One Response to “A blue period”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I’m always on the lookout for truly blue flowers, especially perennials. This year I found a Lithodora that’s been blooming very nicely since I got it (at least six weeks ago). Not at home right now, so I can’t check on the species/variety.

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