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 (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.
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.