Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Fairy bells (Prosartes spp.)


When you notice the enchanting, pendant springtime flowers of fairy bells
, you can almost imagine a tiny fairy jingling their corollas to create a magical sound that only she can hear. An excellent choice for moist woodland gardens or shaded perennial beds, fairybells’ genus is a member of the lily family. It had previously been classified within the Asian genus Disporum, but further analysis found that North American fairybells differ in several ways and in 1995 were ushered into the Prosartes genus. “Prosartes” means “fastened” in Greek, and refers to attachments of the fruit parts.

There are six species within the Prosartes genus, and we are fortunate that three grace the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades: Prosartes hookeri, P. smithii, and P. parvifolia. The latter is a rare species endemic to part of Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains; it had always been considered a variant or hybrid of P. hookeri but recently came into its own. According to the California Native Plant Society, it is “threatened by trampling, logging and associated road usage, and road maintenance.”

Of the remaining two, the more common Prosartes hookeri (Hooker’s fairy bells, pictured above) is an upright deciduous perennial with lovely horizontally spreading branches, whose alternate leaves are arranged parallel to the ground for maximum light absorption. The upper stems and veins on the undersides of leaves are somewhat hairy. Spring blooming, bell-shaped flowers that often occur in pairs (or singly or in trios) at stem tips, are protected from rainwater by the pointed tips of leaves which channel tiny streamlets. Later in the year, oval berries, slightly tri-lobed, ripen to a bright red. They are edible, but rather bland and seedy; it’s best to leave them for wildlife or allow them to naturally propagate.

Prosartes smithii

 
Prosartes smithii (Smith’s fairy lantern, shown above) is similar, but its leaves are hairless, and its slightly larger and more cylindrical flowers (that only flare slightly at the tips) hang in clusters of two to five from the underside of stems. Their fruit is slightly tri-lobed and ripens to a golden-orange (pictured below).

How it grows
Fairy bell plants grow in moist, shaded forests or openings, from low elevations up to about 5,000 feet. Prosartes hookeri naturally occurs in British Columbia and throughout much of western Washington and Oregon, as well as northeastern Oregon and parts of eastern Washington, northern Idaho and northern and central California; in addition there is a disjunct population in Ontonagon county in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where it has been classified as endangered. Prosartes smithii has a smaller range—from southern Vancouver Island to Washington’s Olympic peninsula, in Oregon mainly west of the Cascades, and in northern California near the coast.

Prosartes hookeri fruit


Wildlife value
Flowers attract native bees and possibly other pollinators. Fruit ripens in mid to late summer or early fall and is eaten by ground-feeding birds such as robins and towhees, as well as small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks. Plants provide shelter for insects and other little ground dwelling creatures. 

Try it at home
Fairy bells are charming, easy-to-grow plants that ought to be grown more. Because their roots are rhizomatous, they will eventually create a small thicket, but they may be the shyest rhizomes I’ve ever encountered, at least in my yard (which isn’t exactly an intact forest): Velocity of spread is a reluctant crawl (so don’t worry about them “taking over”). Seeds do seem to propagate easily after a few years, but for these plants that is definitely an asset—I can’t imagine not wanting a lot of them!

Because they typically stay under 3 feet tall, they’re perfect a few feet in from pathways or in the front to middle of shaded beds, and although they benefit from a little bit of dappled sunlight, their tolerance for full shade seems to be fairly high. Place them, when possible, in the duff of mature trees. Leafy and woody debris is very important in the forest, and should be allowed to accumulate and decompose on the soil at home as well, since leaves, cones, fallen branches and twigs slow moisture loss and provide habitat as well as nutrients. If your soil is poor and lacking in organic matter, or if the top soil is shallow, add some low-nitrogen compost as mulch (leaf compost is good) after planting and allow whole leaves and such to continually accumulate on top to create more humus.

The leaves of Prosartes species are immune to the ravages of slugs and snails, which reportedly eat the fruits and dutifully disperse the seeds. They have quite deep (and delicate) roots, even when only a few leaves are present, so take care if you want to transplant seedlings. Those deep roots make me think that they may be more resilient and drought tolerant than we give them credit for. 

Grab a partner
Both Smith’s and Hooker’s fairy bells enjoy the company of others in the Western hemlock/Douglas-fir or coastal redwood plant community, including red alder, vine maple, osoberry, evergreen huckleberry, inside-out flower, oxalis, alumroot, trillium, sword fern, deer fern, salal, vanilla leaf, piggyback plant, foam flower, and many others.

Prosartes species are wonderful substitutes for non-native invasive ground covers such as Vinca and English ivy.


© 2018 Eileen M. Stark

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13 thoughts on Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Fairy bells (Prosartes spp.)

  1. Hello,
    Thank you for the great information on fairy bells. I’m trying to figure out what my clump is. I received from an acquaintance at a plant swap about 10 years ago.
    I planted it somewhat under a large hosta and a few days later, a rabbit chewed off all 6 stalks. I was so upset and thought I’d lost the clump but next spring it came up strong and healthy. Yay!
    The bells on my clump are yellow. Is this a different plant than what you are describing in the PNW?
    Thanks,
    Laura

    Reply
    1. Very sorry for the delay in responding to your question! (tech issues). What you have is likely Disporum flavens, which is reportedly native to Korea. In the future, if you need an ID, you can try taking a sample of your plant(s) to a plant nursery.

      Reply
  2. Hello, I just picked the red fruit of the fairy bell and wonder what to do next. Let it dry out snd plant in the fall or wait until spring? Thanks in advance for your advice.

    Reply
    1. Hi Vicki, you can clean the seed of pulp and plant outdoors soon afterwards. My plants self sow easily, so if the fruit came from a plant you have, you may not have to do anything but wait until springtime, when you can dig up and move babies (they have fairly deep roots when small, so be careful not to damage the roots). Good luck!

      Reply
      1. Are so fairy bells CB deer resistant or more an invitation for deer to enjoy the buffet?

        Reply
        1. Several nurseries mention that Fairy bells are “deer resistant.” The USDA FS’s conservation assessment states: “It is not certain to what degree the browsing of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) impacts fairy bells. There is some impact from deer herbivory as revealed by “a portion of browsed individual” that was collected in September 1988 by Mladenoff (1990).” So I imagine they may nibble a little bit, depending on how hungry they are. If that’s the case, plant a lot of these plants so that they’ll be less likely to die out. You also might want to read: https://www.humanegardener.com/gardening-for-deer/

          Reply
  3. Lovely and informative article. There’s not much information out there on growing Prosartes hookeri. I’m about to plant two specimens I got at a native plant nursery here in the San Francisco East Bay. One I’ve nearly killed in the pot, though it seems to be poking a shoot back above the soil. I found your description of its native habitat and your experience growing it in your own garden very helpful. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Lisa, thank you so much for your comment and I’m glad the post was of help to you. One thing I didn’t mention (and that I’ll add now) is that even at a very young age, when only two to four leaves are present, the plant has quite a deep root so may be more resilient and drought tolerant than we give it credit for. I hope you enjoy your plants and thanks for growing natives!

      Reply
  4. I just happened across a few of these in my yard, One in the middle of my fairy garden of all places. The foliage is really quite lovely and it took investigating to figure out exactly what it was. Glad to hear its not toxic since I have young ones around. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Thanks for your comment; I’m glad you have one and hope it will spread. Speaking of fairies, a couple months ago a crow brought a little ceramic one to our bird bath and I found it on the ground about 2 feet from a fairy bell patch. 🙂 Will post a photo when I get a chance.

      Reply
  5. Ah yes…rabbits. Hadn’t thought of those rascals as they don’t show themselves near the house in daylight. And the base is nibbled on first to cut the stalk for a leisurely meal. I will find some kind of barrier to put around the fairy bells in the early spring. Thank you so kindly.

    Reply
  6. Thank you for this description and explanation of how fairy bells propagate. They have appeared in various places on our shy 2 acre country property. I’d love to encourage them in a few shared areas–and now I know how.

    Question: in early spring, some kind of animal loves to chew on the first tender stalks of fairy bells. They often appear to then be eaten right down to the ground. This is before the stalks can become woody and impervious to whatever is eating them. Do you know what is dining on the early stalks? How to protect the plants at the first tender stage?

    Reply
    1. I’m glad the post’s been of help to you. As far as what’s eating it, if you live in a rural area it could be deer? or rabbits? You could try a physical barrier like creating little chicken wire fences that surround them until they get big enough to handle it.

      Reply

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