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The flowers of Harebell appear almost magically out of the late summer and autumn air. Until they open, the plants are almost invisible. They produce small rosettes of tiny, spoon-shaped leaves and tufts of thin, wiry stems that carry clusters of 2-6 flowers. These are large and bell-shaped, flaring gently into five triangular petals, and their colour varies from dark blue to the palest slate-blue. The flowering period is long, usually up to the first frosts, and each plant spreads to form a small clump through the production of underground rhizomes. Several forms are available, including ‘White Gem’ and ‘Thumbell’. This latter has tufts of stems on compact plants and as a result it somewhat lacks the grace and poise of the wild plant.
Harebells (or Scottish Bluebells as they’re sometimes called in Scotland) are plants of dry, poor soils. They grow in pastures, moors and meadows, on sand dunes and cliffs, and along hedge banks and railways. They can’t stand too much competition from other plants and prefer open nooks and crannies. In damp, western areas and on mountains their flowers seem to last longer. They have a curious distribution, being unaccountably rare in some suitable areas, including southwest England and parts of northwest Scotland. This plant has suffered dramatically with habitat loss and the enrichment of our environment with fertilizer – it cannot compete with more robust vegetation. As a result it’s heading towards becoming threatened in England.
This is a plant for the not-too-crowded front of a sunny border, a rock garden, an alpine trough or in a wildflower meadow on poor soil. Plants are readily available from nurseries and garden centres and can also easily be raised from seed sown in autumn or spring – they should flower in their first year.
Harebells on a roadside verge in Wales © Trevor Dines/Plantlife