Known as bellworts, merrybells, haybells, wild oats and (to a few die-hard wildflower lovers) cowbells, these beautiful wildflowers are members of the great lily family. They bear the genus name Uvularia, based on the Latin word “uva,” meaning a bunch of grapes; the name refers to the fruits in some species (it’s also the source of the name for the fleshy lobe at the back of your soft palette, called the uvula).
These lovely wildflowers are native to the eastern United States, with four species usually grown in gardens. The plants bear bright-yellow, nodding bells on strong stalks with foliage that’s attractive throughout the summer. A mature clump of these wildflower beauties — especially the great merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora), the largest of the tribe and most appropriately named — is marvelous when in flower. Eventually the clumps develop into large plant compounds and should be separated, but be sure to replant them immediately. Use gravel or marble-chip mulch to help keep the soil cool.
The farther south you garden, the more these plants appreciate a cool, shaded location and a well-drained, neutral soil that’s rich in organic matter. They are quite happy here in our WNC mountains. In our garden the plants grow underneath oaks and dogwoods, so they get filtered sun in spring but complete open shade during the hot summer months. And every few years, I sprinkle some lime around their roots in the fall, just to help them along.
Uvularia caroliniana is a shorter plant, usually under 20 inches tall and bearing greenish-yellow flowers. The perfoliate bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata) has forking stems up to 24 inches tall; the main stem appears to grow right through the silvery green leaves. Wild oats (U. sessilifolia) are 16 inches tall and bear smaller, mostly solitary, pale-yellow flowers. In the right wooded conditions, wild oats can develop into large distinctive patches. The last two species like soil that’s on the acid side.
American Indians used all four species in remedies, but three are emphasized in the surviving records: Great merrybells were employed as a root-tea wash to treat rheumatic pains, mixed in fat to make an ointment for soothing sore muscles, and used as a poultice to relieve toothaches. The perfoliate bellwort yielded a cough medicine and a treatment for inflamed gums and snakebite. Wild oats were taken for diarrhea and as a blood purifier. The plant was also supposed to help repair broken bones — but it never worked.