Sep 10, 2014

The Purple Monster

By: Lawanda Jungwirth  

        Here’s what happened.  When my husband and I moved to our current home twenty-three years ago, it was beautifully landscaped with many flowers, shrubs and trees, most of which I couldn’t identify.  One pretty little purple flower that I eventually identified was called creeping bellflower.  I thought it an odd name, since it didn’t appear to be a creeper:  the two-foot stems were upright and held pretty purple bell-shaped flowers along their sides.   When my mother saw it, she wanted some for her flower bed, so I divided it and gave some to her.

        Years went by and the creeping bellflower survived each winter in both of our flower beds.   A few years ago, while on a bike ride, I noticed creeping bellflower growing in a weedy ditch a few miles from home.  Huh.  That’s really pretty, I thought. 

        When the Wisconsin DNR developed Rule NR 40 in 2009, I was surprised to see creeping bellflower listed as “Restricted.”  Really?  I couldn’t imagine why.

        I soon found out why.  Suddenly I noticed creeping bellflower in lots of road-side ditches.  And in grassy places along fields, open woodlands, marshes and hedgerows.  Along recreation trails.  In shade and sun.  In wet areas and dry areas.  In clay soils and sandy soils.  Whoa!  This is a true invader!

        It’s almost like creeping bellflower took the NR40 listing as a personal challenge to explode in population!  Seriously though, I am sure it’s been a problem for a while in parts of Wisconsin or it wouldn’t have been listed as Restricted, but it’s only been in the last two years that it’s started its domination over my part of the world.  This spring I spent several hours trying to remove bellflower from my mother’s flower beds where it has pretty much taken over.  Same in my own.  Too late.  I should have heeded NR 40 when I first saw it listed.

        Here are some of the words used to describe this plant on one internet forum:  insidious, monster in disguise, huge mistake, loath this plant, pretty-yet-evil, secretly organizing underground army, multiplying like crazy, cancer of the garden, aliens, beast, nightmare, horrible, awful, purple monster, menace . . . you get the idea.  Strong words for such a pretty plant.  Some of the people on this forum have been battling creeping bellflower for ten or more years!

        So how did this happen?  Like many of our invasive plants, creeping bellflower is native to Europe and Asia and was imported as an ornamental garden plant.  The insect pests and diseases that kept it in control in its native lands did not get imported with it.  Well, it did its secret little creeping thing for a lot of years, and eventually conditions were right for a population explosion.

        “Creeping” implies a slow movement, but this plant is suddenly spreading like crazy!  It spreads both by seed and by creeping underground roots.  Just one plant can produce 15,000 seeds, but it’s relatively easy to prevent it from spreading by seed – just cut or mow the flowers before seeds develop.  The underground roots are the real problem.  You can’t kill them by tilling them under.  In fact, that would only help them spread.  Every tiny little root fiber can produce a new plant.  Same problem with pulling or digging up a patch of it.  The roots can break off.  You’d have to be diligent in sorting through the soil to find every little piece of root.  If you have a small patch of bellflower and an abundance of patience, go for it!

        Reportedly glyphosate (Round-up) kills back the top of the plant, but the root lives to grow another day. 

        Realistically, all we can do for control at this point is to cut or mow it to make sure it doesn’t go to seed, and pull or dig up small patches early before they becomes a huge problem.  Be on the lookout for the purple menace, especially in places that are special to you.   No matter how pretty you think it is, don’t wait.  Get rid of it NOW.

        Take a look at the photos to familiarize yourself with this evil plant.  It has irregularly toothed heart-shaped leaves on erect, unbranched stems 1-3 feet tall.  Leaves near the base of the plant are wider and gradually become shorter and narrower near the top of the stem.   Leaves are dark green on the top side and light green underneath, with short hairs along the underside of the leaf veins.  Purple flowers bloom from June through October, with peak bloom in Wisconsin in July.  Each flower is 1-1 ½ inches long with five recurved petals. 

******* Maybe put the info below in separate boxes:

A NATIVE ALTERNATIVE

If you love the look of creeping bellflower, there is a native plant alternative that looks very similar and will behave itself.  The harebell, also called bluebell bellflower, bluebells of Scotland or Scottish harebell, grows 6-18 inches tall and has nodding deep blue flowers that bloom in June and July, often until frost.  It prefers a sunny area with dry, well-drained soil. Check the Latin name if you buy this plant.  DO BUY Campanula rotundiflora.  DO NOT BUY Campanula rapunculoides; that’s the creeping bellflower!

DIG IT UP AND EAT IT!

The Latin name for creeping bellflower, rapunculoides means “little turnip.”  Do you remember the German fairy tale “Rapunzel?”  She was named for this plant.  In the story, her father steals a rampion plant (another name for creeping bellflower) from a witch’s garden to satisfy his wife’s pregnancy cravings.  In punishment, his daughter Rapunzel is imprisoned in a tower at the age of twelve.  The point here is that the root, as well as the leaves and shoots of this invasive plant, are edible.

WHAT IS A RESTRICTED PLANT?

Wisconsin NR 40 defines a restricted invasive plant as one that is already widely established in our state and has caused high environmental and/or economic impact.  It cannot be transferred, transported or introduced.  Control is encouraged, but not required.