Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Perennials

Balloon Flower

by Barbara Pleasant

If plants were like movies, balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus) would be one of those critical successes that nobody goes to see until word of mouth gives it a boost. Balloon flower, also known as Chinese bellflower, has been racking up great reviews for more than 50 years, yet it's still not found in many gardens. Perhaps some good words here will increase its popularity.

My obsession with balloon flower started 10 years ago, when I ran across an endorsement in Wyman's Garden Encyclopedia (1977 edition). Author Donald Wyman calls it "one of the best garden flowers for the perennial border." I kept reading. In A Southern Garden (1942), Elizabeth Lawrence wrote: "Once entrenched, [balloon flower] improves with time and should be one of the most permanent plants in the border. It is certainly one of the most beautiful."

Permanence. Beauty. And it's blue. I collected some seeds and started growing balloon flowers: tall ones, dwarf ones, and in-between-sized ones. Now let me add my own review to the others. They are as easy to grow as daylilies, and they're probably the most reliable blue bloomers you'll ever grow. As an added benefit, flowering peaks in mid- to late summer, after many other perennials have already come and gone.

This stalwart member of the campanula family is native to China. Its dominant flower color is a dazzling blue, with white and pink forms to complete the palette. Dependably perennial in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 8, balloon flower tolerates both extreme cold and scorching summer heat. It thrives in full sun but also adapts well to partial shade, especially in zones 7 and 8.

The plant's common name makes perfect sense. The flower buds are hollow balloons, which gradually inflate and color up. Finally the buds burst open into star-shaped flowers 2- to 3-inches across. One variety, 'Komachi', never pops open, which I find somewhat deflating. I'll take stars any day.

Varieties differ in flower color and plant size. The Fuji series, the most widely sold, is also the tallest, producing blue, pink, or white blooms on 30-inch-long stems. Because of its height, Fuji always benefits from support, as do 24-inch-tall 'Double Blue', 'Pink Pearl', and 'Shell Pink'. Because plants grow from numerous basal stems that rise directly from the roots, heavy-gauge grow-through supports or support rings are ideal. I use a circular tomato cage shortened so that it stands about 15 inches high when securely installed, but any staking method that provides knee-high loose support is fine.

More compact varieties, less than 18 inches tall, form graceful mounds with little or no staking. Blue 'Mariesii' and violet-blue 'Apoyama', or white 'Pumilum Album' and 'Apoyama Fairy Snow' fit into this intermediate category, and 'Sentimental Blue', a 6-inch-tall dwarf, is ideal for use in containers or small beds.

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