Plant Profile: Disporum hookeri, Prosartes hookeri

by Veronica Wisniewski, Fourth Corner Nurseries

Common Names: Fairy Bells, Hooker’s Fairy Bell, Drops of Gold

Pollination: Could find no information. If you know something, let me know. Slugs are involved in seed dispersal, though, consuming the berries and passing the seeds. For Prosartes, their rasping the seed increased germination in one study.

Culture: Prosartes hookeri and its similar relative Prosartes (Disporum) smithii are generally found in moist wooded areas with dappled sunlight in rich duff covered soils. They nonetheless will grow in full sun in a variety of soils, given they receive adequate moisture.

Notes: Both P. hookeri and P. smithii are North American species widespread throughout the Pacific Coast. P. hookeri has the curious distinction of a sparse, disjoint population located in the Porcupine Mountains of the upper peninsula of Michigan. Some have suggested that the seed of these plants may have been brought in on the wayward boots of wilderness hikers – people who apparently have been jetsetting about researching sasquatch relatives found in the boreal forests of the north.

A plausible, but uncertain explanation is that in response to advancing glaciers fairy bells migrated from the west or retreated from a more widely spread pre-glacial population to its present location in the Great Lakes region. The limited range and population size leave scientists equally uncomfortable with this explanation.

I have found both fairy bell species to be fine additions to the shade garden. As an adherent of the lazy person’s approach to gardening at home, I practice a form I think of as the “duke it out “ planting special. This involves installing a wide mix of rhizomatous native ground covers, interspersed with hardy specimen plants that can hold their own (or not) in the mix and, in the words of David Byrne, “let them go at it, let them see what they do”.

The armies of ground covers in my garden include bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), solomon’s seal, (Smilacena stellata), vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla), wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), waterleaf (Hydrophyllum tenuipes), and meadow rue (Thalictrum occidentale). The different plants advance and retreat and intermingle throughout the seasons and over the years in a riot of texture and tone.

Poking through the competing masses with their stiff stems of glossy green leaves, the fairy bells provide structure and hints of color with their white flowers and bright orange to red berries. Along side the irises, lilies and bluebells, the fairy bells return year after year, unmolested by slugs thanks to the anti-feedent 2.6-nonadienal produced in the leaves, an adaptation no doubt designed to keep the plant from being decimated as the mollusks hunt down the sweet, tasty and seedy berries.