Disporum, commonly called fairy bells, is a group of woodland flowers that are perhaps not so well known by the average gardener. They do not have flamboyant flowers; theirs is a more subtle affair with small start-shaped or bell-like flowers. However, most have attractive foliage and berries and their adaptability to shade lend them use in shady locations and woodland gardens.
In the wild, Disporum are native to North America and the Himalayas of eastern Asia, where they grow in the shade of deciduous or mixed forests. In the garden, dappled sunlight is ideal but they can tolerate full shade if not overcrowded by neighbors. The soil should be organic-rich and on the acidic side. They are not fond of drought. Disporum are ideal companion plants for other shade lovers such as Hosta, Astilbe, Primula and ferns.
The Latin name Disporum comes from "di" - two and "spora" - seed: each fruit generally has 2 seeds. There are 23 species. Most recently, the five American species have been separated from the Asian species, into their own genus Prosartes, but for this article, I will still call them Disporum. All are herbaceous perennials with (slowly) spreading underground rhizomes. Their leaves are oval to lance-shaped, often with a ribbed appearance. They flower in mid to late spring with mostly nodding, green to yellow, bell-like flowers with 6 tepals. The flowers later develop into orange, red or blue-black (inedible) berries. Depending on the species, they vary from 30-90 cm in height. Their closest relatives are Tricyrtis or toad lilies, which differ in the fact that their berries contain more than 2 seeds.
Only a few species are currently in cultivation, mostly the American. The Asian species (the true Disporum) are perhaps more showy with larger, star-like flowers but alas, they are mostly unknown to western gardeners.
Disporum hookeri has primarily a western North American distribution, ranging from BC and Alberta in Canada and south to California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana in the US. There is also an isolated population in Michigan, a post-glacial left-over from a population that was once even more widespread. Plants reach 90 cm with nodding, terminal, bell-like flowers in clusters of 1-3. Their flowers are white to whitish-green.
D. hookeri and D. smithii flower close-ups to show the general flower shape.
Disporum smithii is restricted to western coastal North America, from BC to California. Plants reach 60 cm and have the largest flowers of the American species, producing narrow, 2 cm white bells. They appear like a small white-flowered Uvularia, a close woodland relative known for its yellow narrow bell-like flowers. The cultivar ‘Riele' has creamy-white leaves margined in green...a spectacular foliage plant.
Disporum trachycarpum has the widest distribution, ranging from Ontario to BC in Canada and Stateside from Michigan, the Dakotas to Oregon and south to the mountains of Arizona and New Mexico. Plants reach 80 cm and have greenish-white flowers.
Restricted to the east are two species, D. lanuginosum and D. maculatum. The former ranges from Ontario south to Georgia and Alabama. It is a much taller species, reaching 90 cm with yellow-green bell-like flowers with narrow tepasl lending them a spidery-appearance. Disporum maculatum's distribution overlaps with D. lanuginosum but does not extend into Canada. It reaches 45 cm and has creamy-white flowers finely spotted in purple.
D. maculatum and D. trachycarpum, whole plant shots to show the general form of the genus.
All the North American species produce velvety red to orange-red berries. They are hardy to at least zone 5 or zone 4 if given extra winter protection.
The Asian species are rare in western gardens. The most popular is Disporum sessile, the hardiest species rated for zone 4. This species reaches 25 cm and has bell-like flowers that are white with green tips. Their berries are purple-black. The cultivar ‘Variegata' is quite attractive with white striped foliage. Perhaps even more striking is ‘Cricket' has creamy-white leaves with green margins.
Disporum flavens has relatively large bright yellow flowers and from a distance may be mistaken for Uvularia. Disporum cantoniense reaches 20-40 cm and has greenish-yellow flowers that are often suffused light purple-pink. They are followed by purple berries. The cultivar ‘Night Heron' has bronzy new foliage and purple stems. Disporum bodinieri reaches 30 cm with white flowers and purple berries.
Three Chinese species, D. cantoniense 'Night Heron', D. sessile 'Variegatum' and D. bodinieri.
There are plenty of other Asian species which may make their way to North America in time. Well worth keeping your eyes open for them. If shade is the norm in your garden, then investigating Disporum is well worth your while.
I would like to thank to following people for the use of their pictures: buggycrazy (D. smithii), begoniacrazii (D. cantoniense 'Night Heron'), shadyfolks (D. lanuginosum), SusanDMD (D. sessile 'Variegatum') and TomH3787 (D. bodinieri).