Canterbury Tales: The Bells that Speak a Floral Language

A cottage garden staple, Canterbury bells are beloved for their unique blossoms and dramatic, upright stems. Also known as cup and saucer or Coventry bells, Campanula medium bloom in summer, bringing rich shades of blue, purple, pink, and white to the garden. In the language of flowers, a gift of Canterbury bells sends a message of gratitude. In this guide, I’ll run through everything you need to know about Canterbury Bell’s symbolism.

Canterbury Bells (Campanula medium) Flower Meaning

The Meaning & Symbolism of Canterbury Bells

It’s easy to see where Canterbury bells get (at least part) of their common name: from the bell-shaped flowers with a clapper-like stamen in the middle. The “Canterbury” reference isn’t quite as clear.

The flowers are native to southern Europe and are thought to originate from the Pyrenees region of France and Spain. That means they definitely don’t originate from Kent, home to the Canterbury Cathedral.

Instead, botanical records note that the plants were likely introduced to the British Isles at the end of the 16th century. The flowers were known as “Coventry Bells” for the next century before taking on the Canterbury moniker in the 1800s. To further complicate matters, the 19th-century horticulturalist Joseph Breck wrote that the plants were also known as “Venus’s Looking Glass.”

At least the plant’s scientific name is easy to understand. Campanula means “bell” in Latin.

The Meaning & Symbolism of Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells in Floriography

In the language of flowers, Canterbury bells tend to be associated with various symbolic meanings. A gift of C. medium may send a message of gratitude, support, or constancy. They’re a perfect way to let someone know you’re thinking of them, to say thank you, or to acknowledge support.

Art and Literature

Canterbury bells are subjects of art and literature. Paintings by American artist Laura Coombs Hills, British artist Mary Elizabeth Stormont, and Australian artist Arthur Streeton — all of whom worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — painted Canterbury Bells. So did 18th-century Belgian watercolorist Pierre Joseph Redoute.

The flowers figure in the works of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, a poet from the 1800s. “The Canterbury Bell,” published in 1837, utilizes the flowers as a metaphor for doomed love.

Wrapping Up

Canterbury bells have long been beloved for their panicles of distinctive, bell-shaped blossoms atop upright stems. These summer blooming biennials fill the cottage garden with cool shades of blue, purple, pink, and white and are easy to care for. In floriography, a gift of Canterbury bells sends a message of gratitude and support.

Contributing Editor | linsay@petalrepublic.com | Full Bio

Linsay is an American copywriter based in the Pacific Northwest with a background in academic writing and research. Linsay holds Master's degree in both Anthropology and Library and Information Sciences and has written for numerous national and international publications including USA Today, SFGATE, Hunker, and The Bump across an array of topics in the gardening, green living, and travel sectors. When she's not writing, you'll usually find Linsay reading, kayaking, sailing, snowboarding, or working in her garden.

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