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Balloon Flowers are real tough cookies!

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Balloon flowers are hardy long-lived perennials which are reliable bloomers in cold climates, and can take short periods of drought while still delivering a long season of beautiful blooms with minimal effort. For these reasons, gardeners around the world have always valued the balloon flower, and new gardeners are also re-discovering their charms, not only for their whimsical flower buds, but also because balloon flowers are really tough cookies!

Balloon flowers are part of the easy growing Bell Flower/Campanula family, like the well-known Canterbury Bell (Campanula medium,) and you will notice the resemblance right away. Platycodon grandifloras is native to East Asia, occurring in China, Korea, Japan, and Siberia, where they grow on slopes, and in meadows. The botanical name means ‘broad bell,’ but the open flower is really more of a star shape. However, it's the puffy buds which intrigue gardeners, because as the flower buds grow they inflate like an origami balloon, before unfurling into gorgeous five-star bellflowers, 5 to 7cm across. This enthrals everyone and makes the balloon flower almost irresistible; and taking into account their flower colours which come in sought-after shades of blue, violet-blue, as well as pink and white, make them totally irresistible!

Flowering begins in mid-summer when other summer flowering shrubs and perennials have finished blooming, and continues into autumn, making balloon flowers essential if you love colour in your garden throughout the seasons. They also have attractive serrated, lance-shaped, blue-green leaves. There are many cultivars available;  some types have a dwarf, compact growth habit with a height of about 20cm, while others are much taller, growing up to 60cm and more. Balloon flowers have received the prestigious Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society for their outstanding qualities – what more could you want from a little, low-maintenance perennial!

The new ‘Astra Series’ of F1 cultivars are true dwarfs, with a sturdy and compact form, growing +-25cm tall, and spreading 30 to 60cm.  Only the foliage is dwarf, their flowers are 7cm across, making them hard to ignore, and fabulous gifts for all occasions. For colour all summer long, plant them in the garden, or in window boxes, hanging baskets, and mixed containers. Their flowers can be single or semi-double, and come in blue, violet-blue, pink and white. When the plants are in full bloom, you should find small potted plants available in retail outlets, so grab a couple next time you spot them, they’re worth it!

Uses:

The roots are still used today in Chinese herbal medicine for just about all ailments of the lungs and throat.

Culinary:

The raw roots of Platycodon grandiflorus are toxic, but if properly cooked are edible, rich in calcium, and highly valued in Oriental cuisine. In Japan the roots are used as a condiment, and are one of the seven herbs used to flavour Japanese “Sake.” In Korea, the plant and its roots are referred to as “doraji,” and the root is one of the most common “namul” vegetables - a variety of edible wild greens. It is also one of the most frequent ingredients in “bibimbap” - mixed rice topped with namul. Bellflowers are also used to make sweets and desserts such as “doraji-jeonggwa” - whole bellflower roots, peeled and simmered in a mixture of water, honey, and sugar until candied. Syrup made from the root, called “doraji-cheong” can be used to make “doraji-cha” - balloon flower root tea. It is also used to infuse liquor called “doraji-sul.”

The roots are harvested when they are two or three years old, and prepared by skinning and blanching them in salt water before they are ready to be pickled or fried. Fresh mature leaves may be mildly toxic, but they are safe to use once they have been dried and powdered, and are used to flavour soups etc. The tender uppermost leaves are not toxic and are commonly used in salads.

Platycodon 'Astra' Pink picture courtesy Balloon Flowers are real tough cookies!Platycodon 'Astra' Pink picture courtesy Balloon Flowers are real tough cookies!Platycodon 'Astra' Pink picture courtesy Balloon Flowers are real tough cookies!In the Garden:

Balloon flowers are perfect companions for ornamental grasses, and spiky plants, and look great in rock or gravel gardens. Their delicate form and cool colours complement many perennials, and the blue varieties go especially well with pale yellow Day Lilies (Hemerocallis,) or Yarrow (Achillea.) Balloon flowers are also at home in the company of Lamb's Ear (Stachys,) Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla,) Columbine (Aquilegia,) and Roses. They are essential in sunny flower beds and perennial borders, and the dwarf varieties are wonderful edging plants for the flower border, alongside pathways; and delightful in mixed containers. The older and taller-growing balloon flowers, with their bluish leaves and long trailing stems, are lovely in large hanging baskets, and also very useful in perennial borders, woodland, and cottage gardens.

Balloon flowers are also excellent cut flowers, and fun to grow with children because kids are fascinated by the hot air balloon shape of the buds, and love to pop the flowers open!
 
Platycodon 'Astra' Semi-double Blue Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaPlatycodon 'Astra' Semi-double Blue Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaPlatycodon 'Astra' Semi-double Blue Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaCultivation/Propagation:

Although Platycodon grandiflorus takes some care to establish, it's a long-lived perennial, and quite easy to maintain once established; growing +-35 to 60cm tall and 40cm wide; with newer cultivars remaining much smaller and more compact. Although it thrives in regions with mild winters and good summer rains, the balloon flower is also hardy down to -15°C, and can therefore be cultivated in all temperate zones, where it dies down completely in winter, reappearing again in late spring. In these regions the roots should be mulched in autumn to prevent them from freezing; and because the clumps reappear quite late in spring, you will need to mark their location in the garden, so you don't accidently dig near their sensitive crowns. Although balloon flowers will tolerate short periods of drought, they are not suited to extremely hot and dry regions, and do not like high humidity.

This perennial revels in full sun, but will also take semi-shade. In hot regions of the country it prefers morning sun, or semi-shade, especially during the fierce midday heat. Because it is long-lived, it is worthwhile to prepare the beds very well before sowing or planting out. The balloon flower will adapt to acid, alkaline or neutral garden soils, as long as they are well-drained and fertile, but thrives in slightly acidic soils, with a pH of 5.8 to 6.8. Prepare the planting holes with generous amounts of compost or acid compost, together with a generous dusting of bone meal to encourage strong root growth. Water the young plants thoroughly about twice a week until they are well established; which usually takes an entire growing season, but once established you can water moderately during prolonged hot, or dry spells. Fertilise and mulch the roots with compost in spring, and feed with an all-purpose organic fertiliser. Stake the taller varieties if they begin to fall over, and remove the spent flower stems to promote repeat flowering, and to keep the plants neat.

In ideal growing conditions, balloon flowers will propagate by sending out underground runners, but because the root system is dense and chunky, with a long taproot, they do not like being disturbed, and propagation by division of the clumps is seldom necessary, and not always very successful. You can try making divisions early in the growing season, but instead of digging up the whole plant, slice a piece of the plant off with a sharp knife, making sure you get at least a 1.5cm piece of the root. Pot it up and keep it moist, but remember divided plants can take a season or two to start blooming again.

Propagation is best achieved by collecting the ripe seed, which can be sown directly into well-prepared garden beds in spring, once the soil has warmed up, or they can be started early indoors. Plants grown from seed will not bloom in their first year, unless they are F1 hybrids, and will require cold stratification to break the seeds dormancy before sowing. This is done by simply placing them in the refrigerator to overwinter. Because the seeds need light to germinate, do not cover them with soil, but rather press them gently into the topsoil. Fresh seed should germinate within 2 to 3 weeks, and the seedlings can be thinned to their correct spacing in the garden, or if they were sown into trays, transplanted into larger pots and slowly hardened off, before transplanting outdoors.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Balloon flowers are virtually pest free.  Watch out for slugs attacking the plants; and pick them off by hand, or sprinkle eco-friendly snail and slug bait around the plants. Organic gardeners often spread diatomaceous earth around the base of plants to discourage slugs and snails. Distorted growth or yellowing leaves may signal an aphid infestation, which can be treated with insecticidal soap. Root rot can occur if the soil is too moist.

Toxicity:

Although Platycodon grandiflorus is used for food, it has to be carefully prepared because the roots and leaves are toxic. Other balloon flowers are listed as safe around children and pets; however it is always advisable to supervise young children and pets in the garden.

Caution:

The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, documenting the traditional uses of specific plants as recorded through history. Always research thoroughly before eating any plant with which you are not familiar; and seek advice from a medical practitioner before using any plant medicinally.

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