Know Your Natives – Large-Flower Bellwort

Large-flower bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) of the Bellwort (Colchicaceae) family, formerly of the Lily (Liliaceae) family, is a clump-forming herbaceous perennial with dangling yellow flowers. It occurs in the U.S. primarily from the Ouachita Mountains to northern Minnesota, east to New York, and thence south and west along the Appalachian Mountains to northern Alabama, Mississippi and northeastern Arkansas. Here in Arkansas, it is found throughout the Interior Highlands as well as on Crowley’s Ridge. The genus name is based on a Latin word meaning “palate,” in apparent reference to its dangling flowers suggesting the uvula. The specific epithet is the Latin for “large-flowered.” Other common names include bellflower and merrybells. Preferred habitats are deciduous woodlands with rich well-drained soils.

The rootstock of a mature plant consists of a compact, slowly expanding, shallow, white clump of short rhizomes supported by numerous descending white fleshy roots. Pointed, white stems develop below the surface over winter and, in early spring, push through to the surface. These early stems are covered by a sheath formed by several elongate bracts. With rapid spring growth, a full-sized terminal flower quickly pushes through the bracts, along with several nearly full-sized leaves. As stems continue to grow with additional flowers and associated leaves, their tips bend and the mature flowers become pendulous.

Photo 1: New sprouts, developing in the soil over winter, are supported by fleshy roots. Photo – November 5.
Photo 2: The first flower and associated leaves appear shortly after a stem extends out of a protective sheath of bracts. The stub-nosed bracts remain at the base of stem. Photo – March 18.

Mature stems have alternate, widely spaced leaves. New leaves are broadly lanceolate with curled margins; mature leaves (to 5 inches long and 2 inches wide) become more elliptic and flattened, with an acuminate apex. Leaf bases are perfoliate: the petiole attaches not to the leaf margin but to the blade itself, creating a rounded or somewhat lobed basal projection around the stem. The width of this projection decreases up the stem and ultimate apical leaves (when a flower is not present) are not perfoliate. The lower leaf surface is covered with very fine, dense pubescence which may cause leaf color to be whitish (canescent). Stems (to 2 feet long) are glabrous (smooth) and slightly glaucous (covered with a bluish haze). After flowering, the main stems become stronger and more erect, though arching still, and a zigzag form becomes apparent.

Photo 3: Single flowers are borne on side-stems as the dominant stem continues to elongate from the node.

In late March into April, flowers reach anthesis, the bloom period of a mature clump extending for a week or more. Slender pedicels are to about 1 inch long.

Photo 4: The weak apical portion of growing stems bends down. Margins of new leaves tend to be revolute. Note perfoliate leaf structure. (Ultimate apical leaves are not perfoliate.) Photo – April 7.

The dangling flowers, 1½ inches long, are elongate and bell-shaped (campanulate), with a perianth of six yellow sepals and petals, six stamens, and a style divided into three stigmatic lobes. The lanceolate, smooth, twisted perianth effectively hides the ½ inch+ stamens and style. Perianth bases are greenish. Stamens comprise stubby white filaments capped with slender, elongate, pale yellow anthers. Filaments, ⅓ the length of the anthers, are flattened and curved about the ovary. The pale green, rounded, three-loculed ovary is superior, attaching directly to the pedicel. Perianth parts are smooth on both inside and outside. Pollen is light yellow.

Photo 5: Paired side and main stems are subtended by perfoliate leaves. Leaves broaden as they mature so that parallel venation becomes arched. Both surfaces of leaves are shown.
Photo 6: Stamens, with stubby white filaments (bent around ovary), bear elongate light yellow anthers that produce light yellow pollen. Tip of pistil divides to expose three stigmatic lobes.

Fertilized flowers produce rounded, three-lobed capsules about ⅓ inch long and wide. In late summer, capsules split along three seams to expose several irregularly rounded seeds in each cell. Seeds are equipped with elaiosomes (food packets) that attract ants to assist in seed dispersal. Dry seeds are dark brown. (A developing fruit is shown at left-center of Photo 4.)

For a native plant garden or natural area with fertile mesic soil shaded by deciduous trees, large-flowered bellwort is an excellent choice. Flowers appear early in spring and nicely textured leaves remain into late summer. This long-lived perennial forms tight vase-shaped clumps that can be divided in fall. It is not noted for spreading by seed. The yellow pendulous flowers and distinctive foliage mix well with spring ephemerals and ferns. Various bees feed on the nectar and pollen. It is a preferred forage for deer.

In addition to large-flowered bellwort, two other species of Uvularia occur in Arkansas: perfoliate bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata) in the Ouachita Mountains and sessile-leaf bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia), mostly in the western two-thirds of the state. Large-flowered bellwort can be easily distinguished from the latter by its perfoliate leaves and from the former (on close inspection) by the smooth texture of its sepals and petals––sepals and petals of perfoliate bellwort are granular pubescent within. 

Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl

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