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Species distribution and density. Darker squares represent higher density of members of this family.

Introduction

(excluding Lobeliaceae)
Bell flower family

A cosmopolitan family of mostly herbs with relatively large, showy flowers predominantly blue in colour; some genera are endemic to South Africa (Merciera, Roella, Theilera).

Distribution

Found mainly in the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere with fewer species in South America, southern Africa and Australasia. Within southern Africa the family is widespread with the highest diversity in the Western Cape.

Number of genera in the world

ca. 50

Number of species in the world

ca. 1 046

Number of genera in the Flora of southern Africa region

12

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Number of species in the Flora of southern Africa region

260

Well-known southern African genera

Prismatocarpus, Wahlenbergia

Growth forms

Mostly annual and perennial herbs or shrublets, seldom shrubs or trees.

Habitats

Mostly found in open habitats, e.g. grassland, fynbos and semi-arid regions; from mountaintops to coastal flats.

Flagship species

Craterocapsa tarsodes (carpet bell flower) is a mat-forming herb with lance-shaped leaves and bell-shaped flowers. The stems are short, ending in rosettes of leaves. The blue or white flowers are borne in the axils of the leaves during summer. This species is found on rocky outcrops and stony grassland all along the Drakensberg escarpment between altitudes of 1 200 and 2 500 m. (Photo: JK).

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Significance of the family

Members of the family are used as garden ornamentals (*Campanula, *Symphyandra, Wahlenbergia). In the past, a few Wahlenbergia species were used as a vegetable in Europe. In Chinese medicine the roots of *Codonopsis are used as a tonic. Traditional use of Wahlenbergia in southern Africa includes treatment of stomach ailments and use as protective charms. In Namaqualand, Wahlenbergia species contribute considerably to the flower display during spring, especially towards the end of the flowering season.

Diagnostic characters

Plants usually contain milky latex . Leaves simple, mostly alternate without stipules . Regular flowers  borne in racemes or cymes; flowering parts usually pentamerous with the bell-shaped corolla consisting of 5 fused petals . Anthers free . Calyx tube fused with the inferior ovary , often crowned by an annular nectary. Fruit usually a dehiscent capsule (indehiscent in Merciera), often crowned by persistent calyx lobes , rarely a berry.

Did you know?

The corolla lobes show 'sleeping' movements-flowers open at midmorning and close in late afternoon. Some wasps and bees use the closed flowers for shelter during the night.