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Herb to Know: Balloon Flower

| October/November 1998

  • Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.

• Platycodon grandiflorus
(Plat-ee-KO-don gran-dih-FLOR-uss)
• Family Campanulaceae
• Perennial herb

Large, puffy buds opening to shallow, bell-shaped blossoms make balloon flower a favorite feature of the summer perennial garden. In the Far East, the plant’s fleshy roots have been consumed for their health benefits for more than 2,000 years.

The genus Platycodon (Greek for “broad bell”) contains a single species of herbaceous perennial native to Japan, Korea, northern China, and eastern Siberia. P. grandiflorus (Latin for “large flower”) grows in neat 1-foot-wide clumps. The smooth stems branch near their tops; they bear toothed, ovate green leaves up to 3 inches long, the lower ones arranged in whorls, the upper ones alternately.

Solitary flowers or small clusters bloom in mid- to late summer. Children can seldom resist popping the inflated buds (the “balloons”), which otherwise open into 2-inch upward-facing bells with five pointed petals, yellow-white stamens that are inflated at the base, and five stigmas. In fall, the foliage turns yellow, providing interest in the garden even after plants have stopped blooming.

P. grandiflorus grows about 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall and has blue single flowers, but cultivars are available in other colors, double flowers, and shorter stems. They include ‘Alba’, ‘Fuji Blue’, and ‘Double Blue’, 24 inches tall; ‘Hakone Double Blue’, ‘Hakone Double White’, ‘Mariesii’ (blue), and ‘Mother of Pearl’, 12 to 18 inches tall; ‘Baby Blue’, ‘Sentimental Blue’, ‘Apoyama Fairy Snow’, and ‘Apoyama Misato Purple’, 6 to 8 inches tall. ‘Komachi’, 16 inches, has dark blue buds that never open.

The taller forms may be placed in the middle of the flower bed, the shorter ones at the front. The smallest forms, which nevertheless have full-sized flowers, may be grown in containers and are often found in rock gardens. All thrive in Zones 3 to 10 except in southern Florida and along the Gulf Coast.

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