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Canarina canariensis (Canary bell-flower)

Canary bell-flower is a winter-flowering scrambler from the Canary Islands, with bright orange bells and copious watery nectar.

Flower of Canary bell flower

Canarina canariensis

Species information

Scientific name: 

Canarina canariensis (L.) Vatke

Common name: 

Canary bell-flower

Conservation status: 

Not considered to be threatened, but vulnerable to habitat destruction, particularly on Gran Canaria.

Habitat: 

Margins of laurel forest (mild temperate forest).

Key Uses: 

Ornamental; edible fruits.

Known hazards: 

The milky sap can be an irritant.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Asteranae
Order: 
Asterales
Family: 
Campanulaceae
Genus: Canarina

About this species

Canary bell-flower is a beautiful scrambler for a frost-free greenhouse or subtropical climate, flowering all through the winter. The stems are annual, growing up from a thick, tuberous root. The flowers are orange or red, beautifully veined, and produce large drops of very watery nectar. After flowering the plant forms edible, black or purple, fig-like fruits, full of small seeds.

Synonym: 

Campanula canariensis, Canarina campanula

Genus: 
Canarina

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Found only in the Canary Islands, on Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Palma and La Gomera.

Canarina canariensis grows on the margins of the species-rich laurel forest, growing up through brambles and bracken, or climbing into tree heath (Erica arborea) at 300 to 1,000 m above sea level. Laurel forest (laurisilva) is a unique type of vegetation found on the Canary Islands, Madeira and the Azores. The forest of each archipelago, and indeed of each island of the Canaries, has its own locally endemic plant species (species found only on individual islands or restricted to individual forest patches), making this type of forest one of the world’s centres of plant diversity, and of great importance for conservation.

Species related to C. canariensis are found in east Africa, from Ethiopia and Kenya south to Malawi. 

Description

Canarina canariensis is a scrambler with a rootstock with many thick, tuberous roots. It is glaucous (covered with a waxy, grey-green bloom) and has abundant milky sap. The stems are fleshy, hollow, dichotomously branched, and climb or scramble to a height of 3 m. The leaves are triangular, shaped like an arrowhead, with blunt teeth and deeply impressed veins. The leaves are 6-10 cm long, 5-9 cm wide across the lower lobes, and are borne opposite each other on the stem.

Illustration of Canarina canariensis by Sydenham Edwards (1799) reproduced from Curtis's Botanical Magazine.

The flowers are solitary and are borne at the ends of shoots, the stems then forming two further branches from the leaf axils. The calyx has six narrow, spreading lobes. The corolla is orange or red, with distinct purple veins and is campanulate (bell-shaped), with six pointed lobes. The style is club-shaped at first, dividing at maturity into six recurved stigmas. The fruits are ovoid, formed by the swollen ovary, topped by the persistent calyx lobes and are reddish, purplish or black when ripe. The fruits are sweet and sticky.

Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Curtis's Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.

Now well over 200 years old, the Magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.

Published for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

Find out more about Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Bird-pollinated flowers

The genus Canarina is interesting in being a small, diverse group of Canary Island flowers which appear to be adapted to pollination by sunbirds. Sunbirds are not found in the Canaries today, though they are common in eastern and southern Africa. The stiff-textured, orange flowers and copious watery nectar are characteristic of bird-pollinated flowers and birds such as tits and finches have been observed visiting the flowers. Digitalis (Isoplexis) species, Lavatera phoenicea and Lotus berthelotii also appear to be specially adapted to bird pollination.

Uses

Canarina canariensis has a long history of cultivation in England. It is recorded by Philip Miller as being grown in the royal garden at Hampton Court in 1696.

The fruits of Canary bell-flower ('bicacaros') are edible. They were among the wild fruits eaten by the Guanches, early settlers on the Canary Islands who may have arrived from North Africa between 2-3,000 years ago.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those likely to be of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Two
Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox (the seeds of this plant survive drying without significant reduction in their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB)
Germination testing: 80% germination achieved on a 1% agar medium, at a temperature of 16°C, on a cycle of 12 hours daylight/12 hours darkness. 95% germination achieved on a 1% agar medium + 250 mg/l gibberellic acid (GA3), at a temperature of 15°C, on a cycle of 8 hours daylight/16 hours darkness.

Cultivation

Canary bell-flower is easily grown in a large pot of sandy soil, with the stems trained up a tall support and then allowed to hang down. It should be allowed to dry out during the summer when the stems die down, and watered again in late autumn after growth begins. Care should be taken to allow the soil to become almost dry between waterings; some high potash liquid feed will help to build up a strong plant.

Propagation is best by seed, formed from the cross-pollination of two clones. Propagation can also be achieved by division of the dormant roots, but care should be taken to ensure that each piece has a portion of the rootstock attached, and that any broken piece is allowed to dry before replanting. The stems are frost-tender, being killed by temperatures of about -2°C. 

This species at Kew

At Kew Canarina canariensis can be seen planted in the ground in the Canary Islands section (zone 3) of the Princess of Wales Conservatory. Although it grows in partial shade in the wild, in more northern areas it is best grown with as much winter sun as possible.

References and credits

Bramwell, D. (1994). Canary Islands, Spain (Autonomous Region). In: Davis, S.D., Heywood, V.H. and Hamilton, A.C. (eds) (1994). Centres of Plant Diversity: A Guide and Strategy for their Conservation. Volume 1: Europe, Africa, South West Asia and the Middle East. IUCN Publications Unit, Cambridge. 89-91.

Bramwell, D. & Bramwell, Z.I. (1984). Wild Flowers of the Canary Islands. Stanley Thornes, Cheltenham, England.

Curtis, W. (1799). Canarina campanula. Curtis’s Bot. Mag., t. 444.

Darias, V., Bravo, L., Barquin, E., Martin Herrera, D. and Fraile, C. (1986). Contribution to the ethnopharmacological study of the Canary Islands. J. Ethnopharmacol. 15(2): 169-193.

Valido, A., Dupont, Y.L. & Olesen, J.M. (2004). Bird–flower interactions in the Macaronesian islands. J. of Biogeogr. 31: 1945–1953.

Kew Science Editor: Martyn Rix
Kew contributors: Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group)
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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