Disporum longistylum 'Night Heron'

purple-leaf fairy bells

Disporum longistylum or fairy bells is a graceful plant in the Colchicaceae family or the Liliaceae if you prefer your taxonomy old school or even occasionally the Convallariaceae. At any rate, this woodland lily relative grows throughout a fairly large range in China mainly in forests and rocky spots. Its identity has often been confused with the very similar, D. cantoniense. An easy way to distinguish the species is to look at the stamens which will hang out past the petals on D. longistylum but be modestly hidden in D. cantoniense.

The species looks a bit like a very well-behaved clump of bamboo during the summer with 5'–6' tall jointed stems with lanceolate leaves. Creamy yellow flowers droop gracefully from the tips of branchlets and are followed in late summer by blue-black fruit. Plants die back to the ground in winter waiting for spring to erupt again.

The cultivar, 'Night Heron', was found in China by plantsman and Arboretum friend Dan Hinkley. The new stems are purple and the spring leaves emerge deep burgundy before fading to green-purple unless you live in England or the Pacific Northwest. The pale flowers look especially good against the dark foliage in early summer. Plants will form clumps to 3' across over time and the stems add an excellent vertical accent among ferns, hostas, epimediums and other woodland perennials or reaching through the branches of small trees and shrubs.

Fairy bells enjoy the moist, well-drained, organic soils of woodland gardens. For the most robust growth, place it in a spot with morning sun and some protection from afternoon shade. It will tolerate full sun with adequate summer moisture or full shade but will not grow or flower as robustly and may need the support of a neighboring shrub.