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Platycodon: Balloons for a Garden Party

October 23, 2011

Buds and blooms of Platycodon grandiflorus (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Some flowers in the garden are refined and elegant, while others are loud and boisterous; and some are just plain fun. For me, Platycodon falls in the latter category. The botanical “Latin” name of this east Asian native is derived from two Greek roots: platy, meaning “broad,” and kodon, meaning “bell.” These plants are part of the larger bellflower family (Campanulaceae), and “broad bell” aptly describes the shape of their flowers.

Only one species of this genus, Platycodon grandiflorus, is listed in my garden reference books, and it is the species I am growing in my garden. The fun feature of this plant is best captured by its common name of “balloon flower;” the flower buds start off small and green, and then they puff up bigger and bigger, acquiring their flower color just before they burst open from the top.

Platycodon buds (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Blue platycodon bud about to open (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)
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If you happen to be paying attention at the right moment, you might see the first flower petal begin to lift, just before the flower fully opens.

Blue platycodon opening (photo credit: Jean Potuche) Pink platycodon opening (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)
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Pay attention after the flower opens, and you can see the inner parts of the flower unfold over the following days.  At first, the stamens and pistil seem to form a solid unit at the center of the flower. Then, the stamens spread away from the center and lie flat against the base of the petals. Once that happens, the pistil also begins to open, forming a white star shape at the center just before the flower fades. The whole process can happen in just a few days in warm weather. But in cool fall temperatures, each stage can last for several days.

Platycodon shell pink (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Newly opened Platycodon flower (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)
Blue platycodon with open stamens (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Pink platycodon with open stamens (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)
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Pink and blue Platycodon blooming by the back steps (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) I have Platycodon grandiflorus growing in many parts of my garden. It likes full sun and well-drained soil and is easy to grow in my sandy conditions in Maine. Most reference books describe Platycodon as growing about 2’ – 2 1/2’ tall, but it typically reaches heights of about 3’ in my garden. Most books recommend that you not try to divide these plants because they don’t like to be disturbed and are easily propagated from seed. The usual advice is to put them where you want them and then leave them alone to form a big clump. I have never tried to divide a Platycodon plant, but I have successfully moved them in the spring. I occasionally find self-sown seedlings (always blue) in my garden, and I consider these volunteers a special treat.

Balloon flowers come in three colors – blue, pink, and white, and I have all three growing in my garden. One of the virtues of this plant is that it blooms in late summer, after many flowering perennials have passed their peak. In my Maine garden, the first balloon flower to bloom is usually the dwarf variety ‘Sentimental Blue,’ which opens its first flowers in mid-July. It is followed within a week or so by the tall blue variety, and then about a week after that, by the very lovely ‘Shell Pink.’ The plants in my back garden bloom somewhat later than those on the back slope (perhaps because they get a bit less sun), with the blues opening their first flowers in late July and the pinks in early August. The white-flowered plants are the last to bloom (in mid-August in my garden), and I have found their flowers smaller and the plants less vigorous.

White Platycodon (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)
Blue Platycodon (photo credit: Jean Potuchek

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Pink Platycodon (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)

Platycodon flowers continue to open over a period of several weeks, and they will make a second flush of flowers if they are faithfully deadheaded. (In my Gettysburg, Pennsylvania garden, the last of the balloon flowers just finished blooming this week.) I have found that cutting the foliage back about 1/3 in June results in fuller, bushier plants and slightly delays the onset of their bloom period. (I learned this trick from the deer who browsed my Platycodon plants one summer.) I find that tall plants sometimes tend to flop over; when they do, I use peony hoops to provide them with some discreet support. Because Platycodon are the last plants to emerge in spring (looking like asparagus spears as they poke up out of the ground just when you had given up on them), it is also helpful to mark their place so that you don’t accidently damage their crowns when cultivating nearby.

Platycodon grandiflorus is a rewarding, easy-care plant that provides many weeks of color in the garden. Children love to watch its buds puff up and burst open, and it makes a wonderful, long-lasting cut flower (but only if you sear the end of the stem with an open flame just after cutting).  It is rated as hardy in USDA zones 3-8. Growing this fun flower makes every day feel like a party in the garden.

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2011 10:57 am

    Every time I see this flower, I think that I should grow it. It really is so unique, and the color of the blue is gorgeous. Some day….

  2. October 23, 2011 11:25 am

    Lovely, Jean.

    • October 30, 2011 10:27 am

      Carolyn, It really is a fun flower, although hard to find the right space for in a mostly shady garden.

      Sandra, One of the things I like about these blue flowers is that they continue to bloom after the delphiniums are done. (You can see blue balloon flowers blooming in front of blue delphiniums in my header photo.)

  3. October 23, 2011 12:43 pm

    Cool plant. This sounds like a possible plant for my vexed zone 8 shady garden, which gets sun in spring, but humid SC shade during the summer. It may even bloom twice it sounds like. How tall does it get? I wonder if it could be a low plant mixed in with some tallish ferns if I planted a bunch of seeds.

  4. October 23, 2011 2:02 pm

    These seem to dislike my clay soil but I do love them. I have the dwarf variety growing in full sun in front but no success out back. I will attempt them again but add some sand and compost to the clay in sunnier locations. Actually i just thought of a great spot..thx Jean for bringing these back to my attention.

    • October 30, 2011 10:35 am

      Jim, I think of these as full-sun plants, but after I saw your comment, I looked to see what Allan Armitage has to say about balloon flowers in Herbaceous Perennial Plants (my garden reference bible). Since he gardens in Georgia, his conditions are much closer to yours than mine are. Here’s his take on the sun/shade issue: “Full sun is necessary in the North but plants appreciate some protection from the afternoon sun (i.e., partial shade) in the South…. However, plants of the species, particularly in the South, are too tall and flop over if support is not provided.” There are a number of dwarf varieties that grow about 1 foot tall (or even less, in the case of ‘Sentimental Blue,’ but I don’t think this plant will work if your flower bed is in full shade.

      Donna, One of the reasons I have these all over my garden and why they self-sow there, is that my soil is so sandy. Platycodon provides one of my compensations for not being able to grow many moisture-loving plants (like Hydrangea) that I love. I hope they work out in your new location.

      • November 1, 2011 6:51 pm

        Thanks, Jean. They are such lovely flowers, but am glad for the tip on the book. I will keep looking for the perfect low flowering plant for my crazy shade bed. It’s fall, so I’m enjoying my new favorite–the Burning Bush plant. Do those do well in PA or ME?

  5. October 23, 2011 5:00 pm

    I really like the pictures you captured of the opening balloon petals. Very interesting! I enjoyed how carefully you looked, at just the right time, and how detailed your camera and your eye are. You showed us something neat and intriguing about this lovely common garden perennial.

  6. October 23, 2011 5:01 pm

    Jean, I have a shorter version of this plant, about 18 inches tall and you are correct about disturbing them. I had a wonderful grouping that I moved last year from my too hot south side and none of them survived. Now I have some white ones that flop every year and I would like to relocate them to an area where they are held up by other plantings.

    Maybe, if I am very careful to dig up the complete clump I will be successful. They are a wonderful plant and if deadheaded put out more blooms before frost.

    Eileen

  7. October 23, 2011 5:57 pm

    I was sitting in the rose garden, drinking tea, looking around, when I was mesmerised by the Dietes, wild iris. As I watched the petals slowly unfolded. It is weird to watch, I felt as if someone was standing behind me, waving a magic wand .

    • October 30, 2011 10:47 am

      Laurrie, I’m pleased that you enjoyed the photos. I’ve been saving them up for a couple of years until I had the right ones for this post. The only stage that was missing from my image file was of the open pistil just before the flower fades — but I decided to go ahead with the post anyway.

      Eileen, When I expanded and redesigned my circular flower bed a number of years ago, I dug up two mature clumps of Platycodon (one blue, one white) and moved them to a temporary location. When the bed was done, I replanted the white one there and I gave the blue one away to my sister-in-law. Both clumps survived and are thriving; I think my sister-in-law has even got some self-sown seedlings from the blue one.

      Diana, I have caught these flowers at various stages of their opening up act, but I have never actually seen the whole process unfolding. It would be magical.

  8. October 24, 2011 7:55 pm

    Now I know the difference between balloon flowers and bell flowers. I always thought they looked much the same but I’ve never seen the balloon effect on my flowers so I know I’ve got bell flowers.

  9. October 24, 2011 7:55 pm

    When I first “discovered” gardening in grad school, balloon flowers were one of the clinchers that sealed the deal for me. I still remember my jaw dropping the first time I saw one fully ballooned. But I never saw one in the process of opening up. Your photos of those first petals lifting totally made my day! And who knew it was possible to be grateful to deer for their gardening savvy?

  10. October 24, 2011 8:45 pm

    This was such a beautiful post. I have balloon flower in my own garden, and it is always exciting to see each flower open. And your photos captured their magic.

  11. October 24, 2011 9:50 pm

    I admired these lovely flowers in a previous post you did recently. I’m glad you featured them here, they deserve a post of their own. There’s no question as to their Campanula roots. The flower shape is very similar to a native Campanula that grows here, but these are much larger, and more showy. I love that you learned your pruning trick from the deer. I mustered the courage to prune a Salvia one year after seeing how well a nibbled one filled in…but don’t tell the deer, or they’ll be back to prune everything else!

    • October 30, 2011 10:59 am

      Marguerite, The flowers of bellflower and balloon flower do look very similar, so I’m happy to help you figure out which one you’ve got. The balloon flowers are generally larger (2-3″ across) than most bellflowers. (The exception might be Campanula latifolia.)

      Stacy and Kevin, I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. I find it difficult to resist photographing these flowers, so I had lots of images to choose from.

      Clare, I suspect many of us have learned pruning tricks from the deer. My favorite local nursery advises customers not to worry about all those different rules for pruning different groups of Clematis vines, but to just prune them all back to about 18″ in spring — that’s what the deer do at their nursery and all the plants do just fine!

  12. October 25, 2011 3:28 am

    Hi Jean

    I hope you’re having an awesome week! I thought you might like this infographic I helped build about the health, mental, and financial benefits of gardening (http://blog.lochnesswatergardens.com/how-gardening-benefit/).

    If you think your readers would like it too, please feel free to use it on Jean’s Garden. There’s code at the bottom of our post that makes it super easy to post on your blog. It’s all free (of course). If you have any questions about posting it, let me know and I’ll try to help.

    I don’t know where else to contact you so I just posted a comment here. 🙂

    Thanks!

    ~ Janey
    janealvarado83@gmail.com

  13. October 25, 2011 6:38 am

    Hi, What a wonderful unwrapping of the petals, it’s mesmerising, and beautifully captured.

  14. October 25, 2011 11:27 am

    Ah, Jean you just solved a mystery for me. I bought a Platycodon last year (before I was seriously gardening), planted it and then thought it died. Yesterday I found something “new” sprouting in my garden and wondered what it was … I realised what they are when I read your post when you said “looking like asparagus spears” – that is Exactly what mine look like right now! Yours look lovely – I’m excited about these flowering in my garden.

    • October 30, 2011 11:14 am

      Janey and Hillwards, Thanks for visiting. Janey, I left the link to your infographic posted here for others who’d like to click through.

      Christine, I had to check and see where you garden when I saw this comment. “If she has Platycodon coming up now,” I thought, “I hope she’s in the southern hemisphere!” — and you are. Even though I’ve been growing these plants for years, I still have moments in late spring when I stare in puzzlement at the new growth and think, “What’s this? I don’t have any asparagus in my garden.” 🙂

  15. October 25, 2011 8:38 pm

    These are such beautiful and interesting blooms. I have had them in arrangements as dried flowers, but I have never tried growing them. They seem like a nice addition to the garden.

  16. October 25, 2011 10:44 pm

    Fantastic pictures! I don’t have this plant, but it looks like it is not only beautiful, but entertaining! Happy fall!

  17. October 26, 2011 1:46 am

    Great information and photos! I am amazed that you were able to capture the flowers as they were opening. I can imagine how lovely these flowers are scattered through your garden. In my own garden they are a bit floppy, but the flowers still win my heart. I must remember to cut mine back early in the season as you do.

  18. October 28, 2011 9:43 pm

    Your photos are lovely, Jean. My balloons bloomed beautifully this summer but did not offer any rebloom. However, the foliage turned a beautiful golden tone this fall that really added an interesting punch.

    • October 30, 2011 11:20 am

      Michelle and Gloria, These are flowers well worth growing if you have the right conditions for them — sun and good drainage. They are, indeed, both beautiful and entertaining.

      Deb, It would be amazing if you caught the flowers in that partly-open position in your garden, but it’s not really difficult in my Maine garden. The flowers seem to slow down their action in cooler temperatures, and overnight temperatures often go down into the forties in Maine in August. I think all my photos of the partially open flowers may have been taken on chilly mornings when they were in a state of suspended animation.

      Joene, A couple of days before the snow hit here, I looked at my golden-leafed Platycodon plant and noticed some new green growth — and at the center of each cluster of new leaves was a tiny green bud.

  19. November 6, 2011 11:42 pm

    Those blooms are absolutely charming! They have always been on my ‘short list’ for must-haves, but hadn’t gotten them yet. Now, knowing they are self-sowing – they just got bumped up on the list. Thanks so much for the feature and the photos!!

  20. November 15, 2011 4:56 pm

    WOW! You really did catch the flower opening from bud to fully bloomed flower. Congratulations. Its hard to monitor it and catch every move.

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