Campanula is a widespread and adaptable genus, with over 400 species ranging from high altitude habitats in the northern hemisphere to parts of tropical Africa and Asia. There are bellflowers suitable for many garden situations, including shade-tolerant and ground-cover species. Moreover, many species are hardy in the United Kingdom, although they may suffer in winter when the ground is too wet.
The most popular garden examples are herbaceous border species such as Campanula medium and Campanula lactiflora. These are upright perennial or biennial plants, forming a rosette of leaves from which arise spires of hanging, bell-shaped flowers, typically blue, although white, pink and purple forms exist. Other useful garden bellflowers are the mat-forming species which thrive in dry crevices, such as Campanula poscharskyana and Campanula portenschlagiana, ideal for growing on rock gardens or in walls. Several members of the genus are native to Britain, including Campanula rotundifolia, the harebell.
The bell-shaped flowers inspire the common name, bellflower, as well as the scientific name Campanula, Latin for ‘little bell’. Use of scientific names aims to improve accuracy by assigning one name, used globally, to one plant – when multiple common names exist for the same plant, or the same name is used for several different plants, confusion results. Campanula rapunculus and its possible involvement in the story of Rapunzel is an example of this.
The tale we know as Rapunzel reached us via the German writer Friedrich Schulz (1762-1798). It relates how an edible plant is stolen from the garden of a witch, and the thief subsequently forfeits his child as reparation. Schulz named both plant and child Rapunzel, while older versions give the plant as parsley, and the child a related name such as Persinette.
It is tempting to conclude that Schulz’s rapunzel plant was Campanula rapunculus, due to the similarity of the species’ name. However, this native European plant was formerly cultivated as a vegetable for its fleshy, edible roots (to which the name rapunculus, or ‘little turnip’, refers). The common name rapunzel can also refer to Valerianella locusta and to species of Phyteuma and Oenothera. At this distance, it is impossible to be sure which the author meant.
This demonstrates the difficulty of reliably identifying plants using common names, especially in historic contexts, when several plants have the same name. Scientific naming may clarify things, but naming the heroine of a story Campanula rapunculus could pose its own problems.