The harebell, also known as "bluebell" in Scotland, is a rather delicate, pale blue perennial wildflower. In 2004, it was declared the official County flower of Dumfriesshire (Scotland), Yorkshire (England) and County Antrim (Northern Ireland). Its name comes from an old folk belief that witches squeezed juices from the flowers, and turned themselves into hares to escape detection.
The scientific name, Campanula rotundifolia refers to the bell-shaped flowers and round basal leaves respectively.
The small (15 mm), paper-thin blue flowers occur either solitarily or in loose spikes on long narrow stems. The hermaphrodite (having both male and female parts) flowers appear from June to October. Despite being somewhat inconspicuous and having no scent, they are cross-pollinated by bees, flies, and a variety of other insects. The plant is also self-fertile. The tiny seeds ripen from August to October, and are dispersed by the wind.
Although the basal leaves are round, those on the erect part of the stem are long and narrow. Underground there is a thick branching creeping rhizome, with roots growing from the underside, and new growth sprouting from buds along the top during the growing season. The plant is hairless.
Despite its fragile appearance, the harebell is a flower of dry, open windy places from the uplands to the sea. It is found in a very broad range of fairly undisturbed habitats such as grasslands, roadsides and fixed sand dunes, as well as railway and road verges. It tolerates a range of soil pH, and can thrive in both heaths and calcareous grassland. Light, well-drained soils are preferred, and it is often found in shallow, nutritionally poor soils in semi-shade or full sun.
Although found throughout Britain, it is scarce in southwest England. Elsewhere it is known in north temperate areas, including North America and Eurasia, reaching as far north as 70°N
Harebell leaves can be eaten raw in a salad
The plant is known to have beneficial properties. Cures include a remedy for earache that can be made from the roots and a wash for the treatment of sore eyes. It is reputed to cure depression and if the root is chewed, it may help to treat heart and lung complaints. Of course, a professional herbalist should always be consulted to make an exact diagnosis and to recommend correct usage.
The harebell is traditionally associated with both fairies and witches, as indicated by the alternative names of Goblin’s, witches’ or Puck’s thimble. The juice was an element in some of the witches 'flying ointments'. The flowers supposedly assisted mortals in seeing fairies. However, they were also regarded by some as unlucky because they could reveal or even attract bad spirits, including the Devil himself. The name "Aul Man's Bells" comes from Aul or Old Man being as a way of referring to the Devil without speaking his name. They are also called Dead Man's Bells, because hearing the bells ringing was an omen of death. Hardly surprising then, that in a garden, it was a weed often “left un-pulled for fear of offending the 'Aul Man' or the fairies”.